Derrick Walton Jr., the last player on the Clippers roster, is earning a bigger role
Inside the Clippers’ Staples Center dressing room, 15 lockers form a horseshoe. At the ends are veteran guards Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams; in the middle sit All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Back in the preseason, off to the side, there also were two folding chairs.
Because their roster had yet to be cut down its 15-man limit in mid-October, the Clippers didn’t have as many lockers as there were players. So while teammates enjoyed ergonomic chairs, Derrick Walton Jr. and fellow training camp invitee Donte Grantham found themselves with their bags at their feet in no-frills seats next to a shelf that holds the nightly postgame buffet.
The last man to make the roster, Walton is no longer on the Clippers’ fringes.
During a six-game trip that concluded Saturday, the 24-year-old, 6-foot guard averaged 17.6 minutes per game and played crunch-time minutes against Minnesota and Chicago — a long way from the 3.7 minutes he averaged in six appearances during the first 22 games.
“I’m a team-first guy, so I know I always had the ability, but in certain situations you have to wait your turn,” Walton said Saturday. “Just wait my turn, continue to work. I think it was noticed. It was moreso noticed in my preparation and my execution when my time was coming.”
Landry Shamet had 11 points with four rebounds in limited minutes for the Clippers on Saturday. It was his first game action since Nov. 11.
It was certainly noticed by teammate Landry Shamet, who approached Walton after the trip’s finale, in Chicago.
“I told him, ‘Hey man, hell of a road trip,’” Shamet said. “He played his ass off and did earn a lot of trust. He’s playing crucial minutes in games. I know we’re banged up but, still, you can’t disregard that.”
While Walton’s opportunity can be traced to the mounting injuries in the backcourt, it also is rooted in the reasons why the team brought him to summer league, kept him for training camp and signed him on the season’s eve.
A pure point guard on a roster lacking one, Walton is steady with the ball.
“He’s been in big games in his life,” coach Doc Rivers said. “What I like about him is he can make shots.”
Walton’s toughness and preparation have been even more attractive.
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The former includes mental toughness. Walton lacks a guaranteed contract, and while some might be frustrated by that, Walton says he learned to stay in the present, basing his satisfaction on his daily effort. It also helped that, as far back as training camp, locker room fixtures such as Beverley — who, like Walton, played abroad before latching onto an NBA roster — emphasized inclusion even with those on nonguaranteed deals.
“We want to create an environment where the Kawhi Leonards, the Paul Georges, the Lou Williamses, the Derrick Walton Jr.'s are same level,” Beverley said in October. “It don’t matter. We’re the same level.”
Walton’s understanding of small details was spotted again in last week’s win at Toronto when he not only identified a time to switch defensively but pushed a teammate, who appeared to be a step behind, into the right position, too.
In truth, his NBA preparation began long ago — before high school, where he was a Parade all-American, or at Michigan, where his career record was 86-41 while playing in a demanding system under John Beilein.
Since he grew up in Detroit, Walton learned from former NBA players such as Jermaine Jackson, whom he considers a particularly strong mentor, and Manny Harris. His peers included Denver guard Monte Morris and Kay Felder, a second-round pick in 2016.
“I’ve been around NBA basketball players my entire life so I’ve always been expected to think next-level,” he said. “I love this game; I don’t play around with it.
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“I take it serious because it’s something that really brought me a lot of places.”
The Clippers outscored opponents by 4.3 points per game when Walton was on the court during their trip, a mark that tied for third best on the team in that stretch. When Walton sat, the Clippers were slightly outscored. He’s earned “a lot” of trust, George said.
“Every time he’s been out there, he’s made an impact, he’s had big opportunities, big moments for his confidence,” George said. “When his number is called, he’s ready and available and he’s been consistent. I think that is the best thing you can call his stretch of him being out on the floor: He’s been very consistent for us.”
Up next for Clippers: vs. Phoenix Suns
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
On the air: TV: Prime Ticket/NBA TV; Radio: 570
Update: Forward JaMychal Green and guards Lou Williams and Patrick Beverley are questionable to play. Green has missed six of the last seven games with a bruised tailbone and Williams (sore calf) and Beverley (concussion) missed the last two. Phoenix center Deandre Ayton is eligible to return from serving a 25-game suspension after testing positive for a diuretic.
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