The Clippers started training camp with no true point guard expected to make the final roster. Buzz surrounded Terance Mann after a standout summer league and many people in and around the team expected him to compete for the backup point guard spot.
Instead, the Clippers have mostly eschewed playing a traditional point guard, but when they have needed one recently, they have turned to Derrick Walton Jr. Walton played his first real minutes in Washington on Dec. 8 when the Clippers were down several rotation players, and has been reliable whenever he has been called upon since.
Walton has only cracked double-digit scoring once, in the team's latest victory over Sacramento, but he has been a consistent presence on both ends of the floor. Per Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time, Walton has an effective field goal percentage of 78.6, when the league average is 52.2%. He only takes shots that come in the flow of the offense, and he usually makes them.
"I just try every time that I'm on the court and have the ball to make the best decision for the group and the team," Walton said. "If it's me taking the shot, I take it, if it's getting somebody else the shot, pretty simple for me."
Due to the bevy of other playmakers on the roster, Walton doesn't generally have to create for his teammates. As a result, his assist rate is fairly low, but the important takeaway is that he also doesn't commit many turnovers. He simply moves the ball into the next action and keeps the offense humming. The Clippers have a 115.4 offensive rating with Walton at the point, which would rank in the 88th percentile of all lineups in the league.
Defensively, Walton doesn't collect steals or blocks, especially because the Clippers play a lot of zone when he is on the floor. He just stays in the right place and executes the scheme to the best of his ability. Incredibly, the Clippers are 2.7 points per 100 possession better defensively with Walton on the court, even though he rarely plays with the team's better defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Ivica Zubac.
"Again, he had a big night for us in Sacramento. Every time he's out there, he's productive," Paul George said. "Nothing but good things to say about Derrick and what he's bringing to this team."
Walton's recent burst has been perfectly timed considering his contract status. His deal becomes fully guaranteed on Jan. 10. If the Clippers were to consider upgrading their roster via a buyout candidate or unsigned free agent, Walton would likely be the player they cut to make room.
According to John Hollinger, the Clippers are only $1.86 million away from the tax line, so guaranteeing Walton and then subsequently waiving him if another player becomes available could prove costly for the Clippers. Regardless of the financial ramifications, Walton has proven that he belongs on an NBA roster as a depth piece, and he has made meaningful contributions to the Clippers this season. Whether or not he finishes out the season in Los Angeles is unclear.
While that situation works towards a resolution, Walton gets a chance to play against his hometown team, the Detroit Pistons, tonight for the second time in his NBA career. He also played college basketball at the University of Michigan, so his Detroit roots run deep.
"I told Chauncey [Billups] I watched them as a kid, of course I brought up the brawl in the Palace, but yeah I told him I was a Detroit fan growing up," Walton said. "Guys like my dad thought he was so cool and good, and then the city of Detroit just really embraced him, like we really appreciated the whole Bad Boys thing they did in 2003-04."
The Pistons haven't been nearly as impressive this season. They've lost seven of their last eight games, and will take on the Clippers without Markieff Morris, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard and likely Blake Griffin. Expect the Clippers to take full advantage of playing a shorthanded team at the start a four-game homestand.