At the tail end of the 2016-17 college basketball season, D.J. Wilson’s name started popping up on draft boards. The 6’10”, 240 pound forward for Michigan wasn’t on anyone’s radar up until this past season, and the junior was making major headlines in the NCAA Tournament. He had scouts gushing over the size and shooting for a “stretch-4”, and his wingspan and measurables at the NBA combine only further his case to be a legitimate NBA player.
Instead of returning for his senior year, Wilson felt now was the best time to enter his name into the NBA draft and forgo his final two years of collegiate eligibility. In theory, it’s the right move. Wilson probably couldn’t have helped his stock much more, and NBA GMs are petrified of any player older than 21 or 22 years that hasn’t already made a legitimate wave in draft circles. The counterargument is that Wilson could have come back on a top-15 Michigan squad loaded with talent and found his niche as a finisher and defender on a team filled with ball handlers and scorers. Instead, a likely first round pick seems like the most reasonable landing spot for Wilson.
From first glance, Wilson just looks like an NBA player. After beginning his Michigan career as a 6’8” slasher who weighed 200 pounds soaking wet, Wilson has filled his frame exceptionally well and could probably get even stronger if he has to go against opposing power forwards on a nightly basis. While his strength is key, his 7’3” wingspan in the passing lanes and length to block shots allow him to make plays that few players even in the NBA have the ability to.
Offensively, Wilson has developed a pretty reliable jumpshot from both midrange and behind the arc. In his one year of consistent play at Michigan, Wilson shot 63% on 2s, 37% on 3s and 83% from the line. Those numbers aren’t exceptional, but absolutely stand out for a guy who projects to play power forward and small ball center in the NBA.
Because Wilson had a breakout year at Michigan after two lackluster campaigns, his ceiling is ultimately unknown. Can he become a seriously reliable 3-point shooter while blocking nearly two shots per game off the bench? Can he develop a mid-range game off the dribble while improving his rebounding numbers? The unknown could be so enticing to an NBA GM that Wilson gets picked a few spots higher than he’s currently projected solely on oozing potential at the forward position.
As good as Wilson was this past season, how on earth could a player this long and skilled not crack the rotation in Ann Arbor until year 3? In the video above Wilson mentions that he wasn’t “mentally tough”, but players in the NBA are all mentally tough and dominated at either the college level or whatever professional league they were in before the NBA. Will it take Wilson until his third year to adapt to the speed and physicality of the NBA?
On the same point, Wilson’s rebounding numbers for a guy his size are disappointing. Michigan’s guards often do a tremendous job rebounding the ball, but it’s still shocking for Wilson to only average 5.3 rebounds per game for the season while Derrick Walton (4.8 per game) nearly averaged the same amount standing almost a foot shorter. Wilson still has these guard-like tendencies where he forgets he’s taller and stronger than most of the other players on the court, and this lack of toughness will keep him glued to the end of the bench or relegate him to the D-League.
Of the teams near the bottom half of the draft that could realistically pick Wilson, I’d say the Lakers, Spurs and Jazz all seem to be good fits for Wilson. L.A. has an extremely talented young core, and Larry Nance is a similar type of player who is thriving in L.A. With Wilson, Nance and either a center or a small forward, they’d possess one of the most athletic and dynamic young frontcourts off the bench. The Jazz have a ton of great pieces, but pairing Wilson with dynamic shot blocker Rudy Gobert would give the Jazz a ton of options and flexibility, especially with Wilson’s ability to shoot the ball.
The Spurs are the ultimate mid-to-late 20s pick, and usually players that get drafted to this team not only get amazing coaching, but a chance to play and contribute on the safest bet to a NBA playoff team. While San Antonio has Pau Gasol and Lamarcus Aldridge anchoring their frontcourt, bringing in a younger, more athletic forward to pair alongside either one who give the Spurs added depth and versatility in their lineups.
Barring complete insanity, D.J. Wilson will hear his name called on Thursday night. Wilson’s choice to leave Michigan was disappointing for college basketball fans and ultimately could cost Wilson five or 10 draft spots, but it’s absolutely the right move to jump to the NBA when your stock is as high as Wilson’s is.
Scouts love his combination of shooting, defense, length and position versatility, and there’s a good chance he’ll be able to at least provide a spark off an NBA bench in his first year. If he continues to get better defensively and can consistently shoot the ball well, Wilson could carve out a nice little NBA career for himself despite a slow and shaky start in Ann Arbor.