Inspiration for Michigan's new PG
HARPER WOODS, Mich. -- On his phone and on a piece of lined paper tacked onto his wall, Derrick Walton Jr. has a list. He has done this yearly, listing goals he wants to accomplish in basketball and school.
It worked in high school at Chandler Park Academy, where he hit every goal he set last season except two: Winning a state championship and Mr. Basketball -- the latter of which he had little control over.
The lists will continue in college as he enters Michigan with one of the toughest jobs in basketball, replacing point guard Trey Burke, the No. 9 pick in the NBA draft and the consensus national player of the year last season.
The Detroit native has heard the same tropes for months now. How will he replace Burke? Can he lead Michigan to another Final Four? Is he as good as his predecessor?
When a visitor mentions this, he starts dribbling a ball. His face crunches up. He knows he can't be Burke. Not immediately. He's a freshman. Burke is a future NBA starter.
There are similarities in their games. They're around the same height. Both have very good vision and can find open shooters and cutters. Their styles, though, are different. Walton Jr. likes to lighten the mood on the court if he can. Burke was often serious, the expression on his face rarely changing during play.
None of this is good or bad. It is just one of the many differences they have that people will eventually see.
"Whenever I get that question, the first thing that comes out of my mouth is I'm going to be me. I'm not going to be Trey," Walton Jr. said. "I can't be Trey. Trey is a different player. I just know that I bring a lot to the table and he brought a lot to the table. I'm just going to be Derrick Walton. I'm not going to be Trey Burke.
"The things he did on that level were ridiculous. If somebody compares me to him coming out of high school, it's a privilege, but I think it's somewhat disrespectful for him to compare him to a high school player."
The comparisons happen because Burke started as a freshman and there's a chance Walton Jr. will, as well. Burke was the No. 84 prospect in the country in 2011. Walton Jr. is rated the No. 30 recruit in what is considered a strong class.
The skill level is there. So is the goal-making. What Walton Jr. said is on his list this year: Be the Big Ten Rookie of the Year. Make another run at a national championship. Have a good assist-to-turnover ratio. Do well in school.
There is one thing Walton Jr. never has to list. It is always with him. All he has to do is close his eyes or look down at his jersey and see his number to remember the boy he met at 8 years old who would become like a brother to Walton Jr., an only child.
Lou Dawkins ran into his old coach, Curtis Hervey, and the coach of the Detroit Superfriends AAU team asked Dawkins if he had any sons. He did. Then he asked if any of them could play for him. Dawkins, who had a young son named Dorian, said yes.
Dorian, a point guard, showed up at practice. Walton Jr., one of the incumbent Superfriends point guards, wondered who this kid was who would attempt to take his position. Then they started to play. Walton Jr. saw someone who was slower than him, but just as skilled and with more ways to score.
Competitors turned to friends and then brothers, traveling across the country with the Superfriends as one of the top young backcourts in the nation. They'd play one-on-one and stay up all night playing "NBA 2K" video games, with Walton Jr. using Cleveland because of LeBron James.
On the court Walton Jr. was the defensive stopper with flashy speed. Dorian was the savvy scorer. Together, they led the Superfriends. And in early June 2009, the two hung out like nothing would ever separate them. They talked about playing for Dawkins together at Saginaw High that fall as freshmen, continuing their summer basketball success to the high school level.
Walton Jr.'s mother, Angela, had no reservations about her son living with Dawkins and attending Saginaw while coming back to Detroit on weekends if that's what they decided.
"It would have been an incredible backcourt," said Lou, now an assistant coach at Northern Illinois. "But then his dad got the coaching job at Chandler Park. But that would have been a special backcourt, it really would have been."
June 12, 2009, altered it all. Dorian was participating at a summer basketball camp at Michigan State when he collapsed. He was taken to Sparrow Hospital, where he died later that night of a heart defect.
Walton Jr. was in Detroit with his family when he heard Dorian collapsed. He thought it was a joke, but realized soon it wasn't. He ran upstairs. Told his mom.
He had been with his best friend a week before. Now he was gone. In tears herself, Angela couldn't say anything to her son. What could she say?
"He was going nuts," Walton Jr.'s father, Derrick Sr., said. "He was losing his mind. That moment right there, that was a sad moment for him in his life. All I could do is just stand there and talk to him.
"Tell him to hold on."
Walton Jr.'s parents cried and mourned. They considered Dorian a second son. Angela said her son didn't want to play basketball immediately after. He had changed.
They convinced him to keep playing, to play for Dorian. She said it took Walton Jr. "a couple months" to begin to return to the kid he was. By then, he figured out how to keep Dorian with him.
There would be the T-shirt hanging on his door at home with Dorian's name on it. There is the "RIP DD LOVE YOU" at the end of his Twitter bio. There would memories popping up at random times, wondering what it would have been like if Dorian was here to experience it with him. Would they have gone to the same college? Would either one of them have won the state's Mr. Basketball?
There was also something more visible. He would change his number and wear it for as long as he could, for four years at Chandler Park and now as a freshman at Michigan. He would wear No. 10, one of Dorian's two basketball numbers, as a way to honor him -- to always remember him as he tried to achieve the dreams both of them talked about on their own.
"That was a no-brainer for me," Walton Jr. said. "I feel that he should be remembered in some way for me. That's the way he should be remembered. I think that's the way I'm carrying him with me."
As Walton Jr. matured, he picked up more of what he remembered from Dorian's game. He turned himself into a stronger half-court offensive player. He worked on his shot. And after one game his junior year, watching on film, he saw something to make him pause and rewind.
Walton Jr. went behind his back with the ball, took one long stride and made a layup. The move, the image, froze him.
It was as if for a moment, he had become Dorian.
"I saw it on film. It was the exact same [move]. It was crazy," Walton Jr. said. "The first thing that came to my mind is, 'That's something DD would do.'"
Time passed. Walton Jr. evolved into one of the top high school guards in the country. He committed to Michigan. By his senior season, he was one of the favorites to win Mr. Basketball in Michigan -- finishing runner-up to his AAU teammate Monte Morris. Meanwhile, a tournament had been set up in Saginaw in Dorian's memory.
The Dawkins family wanted Chandler Park Academy, with their son's friend as its star and Walton Sr. as its coach, to play in it. But the school had committed to another tournament.
But Walton Jr. needed to play in this tournament. To wear that No. 10 in the Dorian Dawkins Show Your Heart Memorial Classic in the gym where his friend, his brother, would have played. Against the team Dorian -- and possibly even Walton Jr. -- would have played for.
So the switch was made. Chandler Park would play in Saginaw.
"He still has the passion and continues to think about Dorian," Angela said. "I was really shocked, well, not shocked but happy that he really made that decision to play in that tournament. His dad told him it is up to you. He said, 'I've got to play. I've got to play. It would be his senior year.'
"I was shocked he was that passionate about it."
Passion is not an issue with Walton Jr. He craves the chance to take the big shot, to make the game winner. It is something he has always done, be it in summer basketball, in AAU with Dorian as middle schoolers or in high school, when his father looked to his son as a fail-safe option if Chandler Park ever trailed.
And when Walton Jr. thinks about what he can try to bring to Michigan immediately, it is leadership he points to. The basketball will come. He knows he will make some mistakes. He knows no matter what he does, he'll be compared by outsiders to Burke.
But he knows he can lead. He feels comfortable doing it. He has his whole life.
"His potential, his ceiling, is extremely high," Michigan assistant coach LaVall Jordan said. "He has a very natural feel for the game and understanding this level of basketball and how to be a good guard at this level. [He will] grow into the added strength training and conditioning that [strength coach] Jon Sanderson does and the development from Coach [John] Beilein. I can't put a cap on it."
Neither can Walton Jr. He has his list of goals. And he has his number. He'll never forget the reason. As much as Walton Jr. is doing all of this for himself, he knows the Dawkins family is watching and cheering him, as well.
"Both of them always spoke about playing college basketball, about playing together somewhere and then playing in the NBA," Dawkins said. "Every kid has that dream of playing on that next level.
"Derrick is fulfilling his. WIth his drive and DD's spirit, I truly believe he is playing for both of them."
He still speaks often with Lou and with Dawkins' brother, Christian. They text and Facebook message and tweet. When Walton Jr. plays his first game in November, they likely won't be there.
But like Dorian, they won't be too far from Walton Jr.'s mind and his heart.
"I never let him fade away in my head," Walton Jr. said. "He's always with me in some kind of way."