The shot was better than the pass.
Derrick Walton Jr. was humble when asked about the winning play at the end of Saturday’s home game against the San Antonio Spurs. With 10 seconds remaining in overtime, Walton drove to the basket and passed the ball between the legs of Spurs center Jakob Poeltl, into the hands of Saddiq Bey. With two defenders crowding him in the corner, Bey patiently knocked down the 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds left to give the Detroit Pistons their first win in five games, 117-116.
Walton didn’t intend to nutmeg a Spurs defender with his highlight pass. But it added flair to one of the highlights of Detroit’s season. And while the shot might’ve had a higher degree of difficulty, the pass was still nice.
“It just happened like that,” Walton said. “It was a better shot than the pass, I’ll tell you that. That’s a tough shot.”
The end of Saturday’s game was one of the brightest moments in what has been a tough season — and a particularly tough past two weeks — for the Pistons (6-28). With eight players entering health and safety protocols since Dec. 22, they’ve had to rely on eight G League players to fill in the gaps.
Walton, a Detroit native and Michigan alumnus, might be the biggest beneficiary. He signed with the Motor City Cruise this offseason; he had 42 games of NBA experience before his three starts for the Pistons this week. The significance of more time in the NBA, and meaningful minutes with his hometown team, hasn’t been lost on him.
He was one of Detroit’s best players Saturday, finishing with a career-high 11 points, six assists, six rebounds and four steals. The steals don’t tell the full story, though, as he was a defensive pest and forced turnovers and backcourt violations throughout the night. His final assist was just the cherry atop one of his best games as a pro.
Walton only has a couple of days remaining on his 10-day contract, but he hopes this is a new beginning for him.
“It don’t even feel real,” Walton said. “I’m eating at spots I’ve been eating at my whole life. I’m going to malls I’m used to. I’m going home to my dog. It’s surreal. But it’s obviously a blessing, like I said before. I just want to take full advantage of it. I know I belong in this league and I just want to keep proving it. That’s all I can say, I’m just grateful for the opportunity and want to be a part of something that I’ve grown up watching. To have an impact and trying to help, not redirecting but in a sense, just be some form of help, is just a blessing to me and my family, honestly.”
Walton starred at Michigan, starting 125 of 127 games over four seasons from 2013-17. He’s the only player in school history with at least 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 400 assists. Walton was also a star at Harper Woods Chandler Park, finishing as Michigan’s Mr. Basketball runner-up in 2013.
But the NBA is different. Walton said he knows his likely ceiling is being a reserve point guard. Saturday showcased the value he can bring. He was 3-for-10 shooting, and 1-for-5 from 3, but he’s confident he can rediscover his shooting touch.
A week of chemistry building coalesced into a win on Saturday. Walton’s first game with the Pistons this season was last Sunday, and he didn’t have a full practice to prepare for it. The team’s practice Tuesday was like the first day of training camp, head coach Dwane Casey joked, with six new faces on the roster. Two additional players who appeared Saturday night — Micah Potter and Jaysean Paige — were signed to 10-day contracts Wednesday and Friday, respectively.
The Pistons also got big performances from Bey (21 points, a career-high 17 rebounds), Hamidou Diallo (34 points, 13 rebounds, five steals in 50 minutes) and Cruise wing Cassius Stanley (a career-high 19 points), who signed a 10-day contract along with Walton on Christmas.
The Pistons could return to some normalcy soon, with six players — Cade Cunningham, Killian Hayes, Saben Lee, Josh Jackson, Trey Lyles and Rodney McGruder — no longer in protocols. But there are some positives they can take away from their chaotic end to 2021. Walton and Stanley delivered big performances. And Bey, Diallo and Luka Garza thrived while handling bigger minute loads.
Bey knew the winning shot was going to go in as soon as he caught it. But it was a moment for the entire team, he said. Not just him.
“I just felt happy for my team,” Bey said. “I looked at my guys and when I see their excitement, I get excited. And the city of Detroit, that’s how I feel when everybody else is excited outside of me. I know it’s bigger than me.”
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