Wojo: Clock ticks as Michigan waits on Wilson, Wagner

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
D.J. Wilson (5) and Moritz Wagner (13) have yet to decide if they’ll enter the NBA draft or return to Michigan.

It’s a tough game to gauge, and the stakes are huge. Sometime in the next three days, John Beilein will learn if he has a potential Final Four team, or at least a Big Ten contender, or a group that might struggle to make the NCAA Tournament.

The general consensus is, D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner aren’t ready to play in the NBA, not yet. That’s fine, and also irrelevant. The NBA doesn’t take completed products because players don’t stay in college basketball long enough to be completed. The league takes raw materials, guys with size and skill and long arms. Guys precisely like Michigan’s 6-foot-11 Wilson and Wagner.

That’s why Beilein has to be nervous right up until Wednesday, the deadline for prospects to pull out of the draft. Of course he’d love for both to return, giving him a frontcourt as dynamic as any. Based on how these situations have played out in the past, with Michigan players developing and leaving suddenly, there’s a decent chance at least one will depart. If so, my guess is Wilson, whose measurables at the NBA Draft combine were impressive, including a 7-foot-3 wingspan that compensated for a leg injury that sidelined him.

If either leaves, it’s their right and their career, and I hope fans are past denouncing these types of decisions. It might be a mistake from a basketball or financial standpoint, especially if they’re not drafted in the first round. But if an athlete is convinced he’s ready to go, he’s probably ready to go mentally, even if he’s not ready to go physically.

You’d think Beilein is due to get a break, losing five key underclassmen — Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr., Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson III — in the past four years, but it doesn’t work that way. College players everywhere go from relative unknowns to first-round picks in a three-week span. Michigan’s program raised its profile with Big Ten and NCAA Tournament runs last season that also raised players’ profiles, and consequently put the Wolverines in this tenuous situation.

Collision course

Sometimes, short-term success has unintended consequences. So does short-term failure. Michigan State struggled through injuries and lost in the second round of the Tournament, and to his credit, super-freshman Miles Bridges wasn’t leaving on that note. Because of that surprise decision, the Spartans will open as Big Ten favorites and might be ranked No. 1 in the country.

Miles Bridges announced in April he would return to Michigan State for his sophomore season.

If both Michigan big guys return, it would set up one of the most-anticipated seasons ever around here. The Wolverines lose seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin, but Beilein has learned to play the contingency game. He has intriguing replacements in sophomore Xavier Simpson, Kentucky transfer Charles Matthews and the latest addition, Ohio transfer guard Jaaron Simmons.

Tom Izzo’s team is stacked, with Bridges, sophomores Nick Ward and Josh Langford, and touted freshmen Jaren Jackson and Xavier Tillman. Beilein’s team could be stacked a bit lower, but stacked nevertheless if both return.

During last season’s unexpected runs, Wagner played like a kid (he recently turned 20) enjoying new surroundings after coming over from Germany. His offensive game blossomed, highlighted by his 26-point show in the NCAA victory over Louisville. But his strength and defense have a long way to go, and he seems a likely candidate to return to school.

With Wilson, 21, it’s less clear. He flashed rim-protecting defense to go with his deep-shooting and all-around skill, ideally suited for the NBA’s coveted stretch-four position. And sorry, the old loyalty-to-school notion is quaint, but outdated. Ask most college basketball powers, including Kentucky, which could have another four freshmen selected in the first round.

Cool projections

It doesn’t matter that most analysts think Wilson and Wagner should return. Poring over a dozen mock drafts, I found the Michigan duo mentioned only a few times, at the bottom of the first round.

Some rankings — including NBAdraft.net — don’t project them among the 60 players taken in two rounds of what’s supposed to be a deep draft. Both Wilson and Wagner have said they’ll return to school if projected in the second round, which makes sense. But while outside experts might reach a consensus, NBA teams rarely do, and it only takes one to make a first-round promise.

How confusing can it get? Two weeks ago, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford listed Wilson and Wagner on his “All-Go-Back-To-School” team. Yet in Ford’s latest mock draft, he has Wagner taken with the last pick of the first round, No. 30 to Utah.

This is the scattered state of college basketball and it’s not changing anytime soon. And don’t kid yourself, it contributes to the scattered state of the NBA. (Hopefully our eyes will stop bleeding in time for the NBA Finals.)

The biggest name in the draft is Lonzo Ball, who played one season at UCLA and is the son of noted shoe entrepreneur LaVar Ball, who’s playing one bizarre marketing game. Not a single senior is expected to be taken in the first round, with the top prospects mostly freshmen or international players.

The days of players developing gradually in college are long gone, which is why the NBA has its own Development League. The beginning of the end was when high school players were allowed to jump directly to the NBA. Now it’s only slightly less chaotic, with the constant churning of “one-and-dones.”

In its attempt to help players make smart choices, the NCAA created even more variables. A rule instituted last year allows underclassmen to declare for the draft, go through the Combine, gather information, and return to school as long as they don’t sign with an agent. Wilson and Wagner were among a record 137 college players who tested it, and although a majority eventually withdrew, they helped muddy the pool.

Logic suggests if a player isn’t a near-certain first-round pick, it’s not worth the risk. Second-rounders aren’t assured guaranteed contracts, although they eventually can hit it big (see: Draymond Green).

Beilein runs a tight program with meticulous precision, and coachable players get coached-up. That upside has led to four Michigan players drafted in the first round since 2013. The downside? The more it works, the more uncertainty it stirs.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski