DJ Wilson’s 3rd year option being picked was a move that was met with criticism across the board. Since Giannis was drafted at 15 in 2013 the Bucks first round picks have provided very little on court production for the Bucks, or at least that is what the narrative was entering December. Jabari Parker and Rashad Vaughn are failed picks in for their own reasons, but Thon Maker and DJ Wilson are creating their own stories. DJ was written off, he just never really seemed to have the feel for the game that is required to be in an NBA rotation.
Coming out of Michigan the strengths of his NBA game were that he was fairly mobile for his size, long, and could shoot the ball. He had a breakout junior season, capitalized by a conference and NCAA tournament coming out party, where Michigan won six straight games to win the Big Ten Tournament, and advance to sweet sixteen. Prior to his junior season he played sparingly, which is fairly uncommon for almost any upperclassmen drafted into the NBA.
Fast-forward to December 2018 and DJ is thriving for the Milwaukee Bucks. Not only is he finally in the rotation, but he has become nearly indispensable for the Bucks. He is their elite defensive big that can switch and protect the rim. He has taken on some of the toughest matchups in the league handling assignments against Anthony Davis and Blake Griffin about as well as can be asked. Leaving Bucks fans with just one question: how did we miss this?
The short version is: we didn’t miss it. DJ has gone through a stage of rapid development in his game, and has increased his basketball IQ especially on the defensive end. His ability to use his wingspan to contest shots, and switch onto guards or big men in pick and roll was not something we ever saw at Michigan.
The long version of it is: these tools were always there and under Jason Kidd we saw a lot of guys not live up to their potential. The Mike Budenholzer school of development has an ability to maximize talent and put players in a position to succeed. DJ always had the tools to be a good defender and shooter. Perhaps the most surprising part of this are his rebounding and roll man abilities, which were never really shown at any level. DJ often shied away from physical contact as recently as this past Summer League, for him to become a guy who rebounds at a good rate and finishes through contact, well that is totally unexpected. He clearly showed up this season, more put together physically, but the difference in mindset is striking.
Matched up on the much smaller Glenn Robinson III, Wilson has no trouble staying in front of the 6’6” wing in isolation on the perimeter, forcing the air ball. pic.twitter.com/oJ2MQSn9Rf
— Ben Rauman (@BenRauman) January 3, 2019
Take a look at these plays (Via @BenRauman) one where he stays in front of a smaller, quicker, wing and one where he guards Blake Griffin in the post. Having a player that can do that on defense raises the ceiling of this Bucks team substantially. His offense will mature as he starts to discover when and where to pick his spots, but if he continues to play like Draymond Green on defense, the Bucks will take whatever he can bring to the table on offense.
Against the Raptors Saturday night DJ suffered a right hip injury, and his absence was felt. Which is as weird a sentence to type as it is to read, but it remains true nonetheless. With guys like Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka able to hit jumpshots, Ersan Ilyasova is tasked with chasing guys around the perimeter, a task he looked lost trying to complete. The Bucks bigs are all flawed in their own way, Lopez is too slow, Ersan is too slow, Thon isn’t physical enough to compete with traditional bigs. DJ might not be perfect, but so far he is showing the speed to guard on the perimeter and the strength to bang in the post.
We will see how the season finishes, but thus far it looks like the Bucks found a gem in Wilson that could change their ceiling in the long term. Wilson had a great December, but here’s to hoping his May is even better.