Will Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Lead Michigan Back?

Posted by Deepak Jayanti on November 8th, 2016

With the final member of the Fresh Five, Caris Levert, now gone from Ann Arbor, the burden shifts to seniors Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton to lead the Wolverines back to the top of the Big Ten. Since the 2012-13 season, there has been at least one Fresh Five player ready to position Michigan as a Big Ten contender. Mitch McGary and Spike Albrecht sparked a run to the National Title game in 2013 before handing the baton to Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III, who then left the program for Levert the last two seasons. Irvin and Walton were supposed to be next in line to support his charge but their performances, regardless of Levert’s injuries, haven’t lived up to expectations. A mediocre 16-16 season was followed by a decent 23-13 campaign last year, but the Wolverines haven’t been in serious contention among the Big Ten elite since 2014. As Irvin and Walton enter their senior campaigns, the overriding question is whether the duo can lead Michigan back to prominence.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to bring Michigan back into the Big Ten Elite.

Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton will have one last shot to push Michigan back into the Big Ten elite. (AP)

While Irvin’s strength is in his long-range jumper, he shot a terrible 29 percent from beyond the arc last year. Despite his quick release off the dribble, Big Ten opponents have figured out that he regularly looks to go right for a pull-up at the top of the key. His other primary scoring option is to run pick-and-roll action with Walton for a corner three off the pick-and-roll. Two years ago, Levert’s dribble-drive penetration freed Irvin in the corners but Walton hasn’t been as successful in creating those same opportunities. As a result, Irvin experienced a big dip in offensive production — from 14.8 PPG during his sophomore season to 11.3 PPG last year. Unless Irvin has spent the summer really improving his game off the dribble, he could continue to struggle in finding his spots on that end of the floor. Unlike Burke, who had the gifted offensive services of Mitch McGary and Robinson available, Walton has not had an effective pick-and-roll partner over the last two seasons. Sure, Mark Donnal can set good picks but he doesn’t have the offensive skill set to make a play when the ball comes his way. Duncan Robinson simply hasn’t proven that he is strong enough to execute the pick-and-roll either. Defenders tend to therefore stick with Walton, which is a good strategic bet. 

Opposing teams can therefore limit Irvin and Walton because both have similar offensive approaches: Look for a pick at the top of the key and quickly pull up in crowded spots for ineffective jumpers. This reduces Michigan’s available options to pushing tempo and consistently looking for transition opportunities — an unsustainable strategy against good teams that don’t turn the ball over. Walton put together a productive junior season regardless — shooting 39 percent from the beyond the arc and dishing out nearly two more assists per game — but without Levert around to draw some defensive attention, he will need to improve significantly to lead the Wolverines to the top of the Big Ten.

Some good news is that the emergence of Robinson inside will limit opportunities for double-teams against the Michigan backcourt. But Irvin and Walton will need more than their jump shots this time around to lead the offense. It will take a commitment to turning the corner and driving to the basket for better openings. Their talent has never been in question, but as seniors, future development can no longer be an excuse. If the pair wants to leave Ann Arbor with a legacy as profound as their Fresh Five predecessors, the time is now.

Deepak Jayanti (270 Posts)

Share this story

One response to “Will Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Lead Michigan Back?”

  1. Jeff Bach says:

    I really enjoy your articles, and I hate to be that guy, but Trey Burke was a class ahead of the fresh five. Also, Kam Chatman transferred at the end of last season. That being said, you are 100% correct that this team will go as far as Walton and Irvin will carry them. Go Blue!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *