AUBURN HILLS – No surprise that the Pistons player 9-year-old Derrick Walton gravitated to was Chauncey Billups. Walton’s a point guard first, last and always, so of course Mr. Big Shot was the player he identified with as a kid growing up in Detroit in the heart of the Goin’ to Work Pistons heyday.
“I was an avid fan. Chauncey was a guy that I liked a lot,” Walton said after taking part in Tuesday’s draft workout for the Pistons. “Being from the city, being 45 minutes away, it’s always knowledge of this program, this organization. They’ve done great things. The banner speaks for itself.”
But ask what NBA player he thinks he most closely resembles and Walton goes off the grid and names the guy who, ironically enough, was a significant part of the reason Billups became a Piston in the first place.
In the 2001-02 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves – a team built around a dynamic 25-year-old Kevin Garnett – had a highly respected veteran point guard in Terrell Brandon blocking Billups’ path to the starting lineup. But Brandon got hurt during the season, allowing Billups to start 54 games and convincing the Pistons that he was the free agent they should target as their point guard.
Had Minnesota been at a different stage of development, the Timberwolves probably would have chosen to go with the 25-year-old Billups over Brandon, 31. But Brandon’s superb playmaking ability – he averaged 12.4 points, nearly identical to Billups’ 12.5 that season, but had a superb 8.3:1.3 assists-to-turnovers ratio – was viewed as critical to a team coming off a 50-win season under Flip Saunders and eyeing a challenge to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference.
That’s the guy, Brandon, Walton sees himself emulating – an efficient scorer who can stretch the floor but more known as a consummate orchestrator and leader.
“You know what I bring,” said Walton, who was Michigan’s starting point guard for four seasons but put himself more squarely on the radar of NBA teams with a phenomenal second half of his season year, capped by leading Michigan to the Big Ten tournament title and into the NCAA Sweet 16.
“I can shoot it. I can run a team. I compete. I can rebound. I lead. Just a lot of things (NBA teams) say they like about me.”
Walton’s challenge – not unlike the player he succeeded as Michigan’s point guard, Trey Burke – will be to convince teams his lack of elite burst and size won’t ultimately limit his ability to succeed in the NBA by the same means he thrived in the Big Ten.
Walton, who has worked out for nearly a third of NBA teams and has more lined up, is still probably less than 50-50 to be drafted. He’s currently ranked 73rd by DraftExpress.com and 71st by ESPN.com in a draft with two rounds and 60 spots. The odds grow a little longer if teams drafting in the 50s follow the trend of drafting international players with no intention of bringing them to the NBA immediately to save roster spots and gamble on upside.
That explains the Pistons interest in having him work out for them in a six-player group that had only one likely first-round prospect, North Carolina’s 6-foot-11 Tony Bradley. Others in the group were Maryland’s Melo Trimble, Miami’s Davon Reed, Iowa’s Peter Jok and Marquette’s Luke Fischer. It’s possible none of them will be drafted. The Pistons, without a second-round pick, are on the lookout for players to fill out their Summer League roster who could be candidates for their D-League team, the Grand Rapids Drive.
“I’ve got a really good feeling about it all,” Walton said. “People that represent me tell me anything is open from anywhere. A lot of teams with picks or looking to get picks is all in the cards for me. Pretty much finishing the process up as strong as possible, taking each and every day and doing what I can and not worry about what I can’t control.”
Walton’s dream of playing in the NBA, like those harbored by tens of thousands of 2004 9-year-olds, wasn’t quite so audacious as to envision himself playing for the Pistons. But he got to wear that jersey – OK, just a practice jersey, but it said “Pistons” on the chest – for a day on Tuesday and, well, you never know.
“Oh, man. It would be an extreme honor,” he said. “A dream come true to play for my hometown team.”