Ann Arbor – D.J. Wilson wasn’t supposed to be the one standing there at the line, sealing Michigan’s Sweet 16 spot with four clutch free throws in the final 20 seconds of a 73-69 upset of Louisville.
That was poor late-game execution on inbound plays by the Wolverines, really, a point coach John Beilein planned to drive home during a brief practice Tuesday before the team headed to Kansas City for Thursday’s Midwest Regional semifinal against Oregon.
Then again, Wilson wasn’t supposed to be where he is now, either, drawing the attention of NBA scouts at the end of a breakout season, prompting speculation he might test the waters as an early-entry candidate this spring. And that’s a point that bears repeating as well as Michigan hopes to continue it’s magical March run this week.
A year ago, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound forward was considering jumping ship for a different reason, skipping an end-of-season meeting with his coach while contemplating a transfer after playing sparingly as a redshirt freshman. (Wilson played a total of nine minutes in Michigan’s final eight games last spring.)
Ultimately, Wilson decided to stay, agreeing to “trust the process” and determined to “fight through everything and finally show people what I’m capable of” after a summer of intense workouts. But the biggest reason he’s still in Ann Arbor, he admits now, is “just because I didn’t want to sit out another year” as a transfer student. Heck, he’d already done that twice, by his math.
Still, even as he finally shows us all what he’s capable of — he’s Michigan’s second-leading scorer this postseason, averaging 16.2 points the last six games — one needs only to watch the video of his final play as a freshman to understand just how far he has come.
It was a cameo appearance against Villanova in the championship game of the Legends Classic in Brooklyn, and Wilson took a screen-and-roll pass from Derrick Walton Jr. and went up for a dunk. But a 6-foot-2 guard named Dylan Ennis went up and emphatically rejected him. Embarrassed to see it replayed on ESPN that night, Wilson looks at it “as a positive” now, calling it “a blessing in disguise for me.”
Wilson suffered a sprained knee on the play, but it also highlighted a structural concern that played into the decision to redshirt that season. His “valgus” dysfunction — knees that buckled inward as he braced to jump — “was the worst I’ve seen in my career,” said Jon Sanderson, Michigan’s strength and conditioning coach. And something he knew they’d have to correct to prevent further injury and allow Wilson, who’d arrived on campus as a late-blooming, top-150 national recruit from Sacramento, Calif., to develop.
That process is still ongoing, “and he still has a long way to go,” Sanderson says, “but he’s a talented player with a huge upside.” And having already added more than 20 pounds of muscle to his lanky frame – along with eight inches to his vertical leap – everyone is starting to take notice.
Wilson initially bristled at the notion of playing center — he’s ideally suited to play as a stretch four – “but in this system, I came to realize it’s a great position to play, especially on the offensive end,” he said. And he’s finding more minutes there again lately, as he and sophomore Moritz Wagner serve as interchangeable pieces.
But there’s a reason Walton calls him Michigan’s “Swiss Army knife,” and why Louisville coach Rick Pitino jokingly referred to Wilson as “their power forward, center, two-guard, whatever they call him.”
There’s also a reason the guy who couldn’t get on the court a year ago played all but four minutes in the two NCAA Tournament games last weekend, adding seven blocked shots to his eye-opening offensive production.
“Just my confidence level,” insists Wilson, who also went for 26 points and eight rebounds against top-seeded Purdue in the Big Ten tournament. “I’m confident in all the work I’ve put in.”
But Beilein, like Sanderson, will point to something else, too. On that play against Villanova, they’ll point to something subtle, as Wilson turns his shoulder to avoid contact before the Ennis block. Beilein talks about “embracing contact” being a skill that must be developed, just like all those others he covets in recruits.
You wouldn’t know it listening to some of his critics, but Beilein calls out players as “tuxedo guys” when they shy away from contact, whether it’s diving for loose balls or taking a charge or simply attacking the basket. And among the compliments he dished out after last weekend’s trip to Indianapolis was telling Wilson he “took the tuxedo off.”
“In September, October, even December, he wouldn’t get through that first contact,” Beilein said. “And now he’s really doing it. I think he’s always wanted to do it. But now he understands that he can do it.”
And now that he can, well, he can certainly take the good-natured jabs from his teammates this week. They’ve made a point to remind the guy who didn’t leave that another player did. Yep, as they’re watching film to prep for Thursday’s game, there’s Dylan Ellis, of all people, starting for Oregon now as a graduate transfer.
“That was definitely talked about in the locker room, just messing around with D.J.,” laughed Zak Irvin, one of the Wolverines’ senior co-captains.
And when Wilson was asked Tuesday if he’ll use that embarrassing memory from his freshman year for extra motivation, he just smiled.
“Not really,” he said, shaking his head. “But if it was to go down like it did, I won’t be on that end.”
Michigan vs. Oregon
What: Michigan vs. Oregon in a semifinal of the Midwest Region.
When: 7:09, Thursday
TV/radio: CBS/WWJ 950
Seedings/records: No. 7 Michigan 26-11, No. 3 Oregon 31-5
At stake: Spot in Midwest Region final against Kansas-Purdue winner