Two years ago, Michigan played Oregon at Barclays Center in New York. The Wolverines eked out a 70-63 victory, led by Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin. D.J. Wilson, a then-freshman for the Wolverines, had one foul in one minute of play. His upcoming counterpart on Thursday, Dillon Brooks, had 14 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes of play for the Ducks.
Brooks finished the season with averages of 11.5 points and 5 rebounds per game, as one of the most effective players for the Ducks. The next year, Brooks bettered those numbers, scoring 17 a game to go along with five rebounds and three assists.
Wilson’s next game his freshman year was against Villanova, a moment he’d be infamous for. In the first half, he went up for a dunk, and was blocked by 6’3” then-Wildcat Dylan Ennis. That was the last minute Wilson played in his first freshman campaign, as a knee injury sidelined him for the season.
The next year wasn’t much better, as Wilson played sparingly for the Wolverines. His only double-figure effort came against Youngstown State, after a barrage of garbage-time 3-pointers brought him to 12 points on the night. Besides for that, he was useless. Fans and pundits alike expected Wilson to transfer. Instead, Kam Chatman, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle departed, all much bigger contributors than Wilson. John Beilein said Wilson would be a major contributor at the 4 this season, and most rolled their eyes when the ever-upbeat coach made another outlandish claim.
Except he was right. From the jump, Wilson had a different bounce in his step. In his first three games, Wilson wasn’t a force offensively, but grabbed eight, 14 and 12 rebounds. His length and defensive prowess at a forward position was something Michigan didn’t have since Glenn Robinson III departed, and even Glenn wasn’t as disruptive in the passing lanes.
Defense started, but offense followed suit shortly thereafter. In his best offensive game of the season, Wilson was dominant in Iowa City, finishing with 28 points, 14 rebounds and six assists in an overtime loss to Iowa. Wilson, who took mostly 3s in his limited first two seasons, scored from an array of post moves, mid-range jumpers and even four 3-pointers for good measure. The ghost of D.J. Wilson vanished, and the new D.J. was here to stay.
This postseason, Wilson has continued his unbelievable play. Over six games, the redshirt sophomore is averaging 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks per game. He’s reached double figures in five of six, but most importantly, he’s become the best defensive player on the floor. He reaches blocks that most defenders couldn’t dream of, and his once awkward strides have turned into lanky gallops, often times leading to leakouts for thunderous dunks.
Which brings us to Thursday. Wilson is tasked with defending Oregon’s best player, Brooks. The Oregon junior has had success for the duration of three years, leading the Ducks as a bruising combo forward who can attack the basket and knock down the outside shot. His play and excitement are as eccentric as the Oregon jerseys, which can range from a more traditional white to highlighter green depending on Phil Knight’s flavor of the week.
In win-or-go-home situations, Michigan has locked down their roles. Derrick Walton remains Michigan’s best and most clutch player. Zak Irvin is the senior who takes and makes a lot of “no-no-no-yes” shots from the elbow. Moritz Wagner is the Wolverines’ most outlandish player. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman is the silent assassin going to the basket. Duncan Robinson is the spark plug shooter off the bench.
Wilson just goes about his business, finishing thunderous dunks to rile up the crowd. He’ll be starting on Brooks, but don’t be surprised if he gets switched onto Tyler Dorsey or Ennis, Oregon’s scoring-capable guards. Maybe Wilson will be tasked with clutch free throws again. When asked about pressure, Wilson calmly answered, “I don’t feel any.”
The California kid is ready for the big stage.