D.J. Wilson Is Milwaukee's Next Positionless Freak
Statistically, Wilson's numbers don't stand out, but on the court the athletic first-rounder could help the Bucks build a versatile lineup that potentially could wreak havoc in the Eastern Conference.
Photo by Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
During the Milwaukee Bucks' final Summer League game, D.J. Wilson, who had been having a rather unremarkable Summer League stint to that point, exemplified the spectacle he can seemingly create whenever he wants.
With one arm cocked behind his head and his nose nearly at the rim, Wilson glided across the paint, his eyes locked on a floater from a Utah Jazz player that seemed out of reach. But instead of falling through the net, as the shooter hoped it would, the ball was met with a violent swing by Wilson, who whipped it off the glass at an awkward angle and right into the hands of his own teammate standing directly underneath the basket.
The possession ended with two points for the Jazz, but moments like this help rationalize Milwaukee's decision to select Wilson with the 17th overall pick in last month's NBA draft. In discussing Wilson, questions about an up-and-down collegiate career, his overall toughness, and his inconsistency are weighed against the fact that he'll turn 22 in the middle of his rookie season, his impressive wingspan, and his athletic 6'10'' frame.
For all his promising qualities—the gymnastic spring, the nimble touch, the agility—Wilson played only 182 minutes in his first two years at the University of Michigan, and didn't score more than ten points in eight of his first ten games this past season. During the Summer League, he averaged only 11.8 points per game on 38 percent shooting. But then there was that block that made you forget those average numbers.
When asked when he first realized Wilson could be a first-round pick, Michigan assistant coach Saddi Washington deadpanned, "On draft night." There's a bit of truth in every joke, though; Wilson's unpredictable play has thus far been intertwined with his nearly limitless potential.
"A lot of the NBA scouts, in the early part of the season, we'd get calls and questions on him," Washington told VICE Sports. "You'd walk in the gym, he has presence and he fits the profile. But can he really make that next jump?"
On the whole, Wilson's Las Vegas experience was mediocre. He launched 22 threes and only made six of them, with an assist rate that eclipsed his rebound percentage. But it can be overkill to base any sort of meaningful criticism on Summer League stats. In many ways it's a peculiar environment that won't make or break anyone's career, especially a big man. Thon Maker, Wilson's new teammate, held his own in the NBA playoffs a few months ago, but was an anxious horror show (six points per game, 22 percent shooting) in two ultimately meaningless Summer League games a couple weeks ago.
Contending with his own nerves, Wilson battled in the post, flashed some bullish aggression on the glass, and inevitably sketched the chalk outline of a player who can be useful for a very long time.
"I think I performed alright," Wilson told VICE Sports. "Some games my shot wasn't falling or whatnot, and I think that kind of changed a lot of things for me as far as, I don't know, just my mentality. But once I get over that, once I get those shots to fall—because those are shots that I can make any day of the week—I think my game will definitely elevate to another level."
Even if his ceiling isn't on the same plane as an All-NBA headline act like Giannis Antetokounmpo, or if he doesn't have the intangibles of bottomless intrigue that surround Maker, Wilson is still tailor-made to complement those two, Khris Middleton, and Jabari Parker with his own upside.
He made 37.3 percent of his threes at Michigan last year while displaying an ability to stick with shiftier players on the perimeter. He should be able to switch most screens in the NBA (if the Bucks ever adopt that strategy on a full-time basis) and allow Milwaukee to maintain size without sacrificing speed or skill.
"At 6'10", he's an elite athlete," Washington said. "In time he may get to be a player who can masquerade at the three in the NBA. The league is just emerging into positionless basketball, so there would be times where we had D.J. playing the five for us.… For him to go 17 was a bit of a shock, but for him to go to the Bucks was a blessing in disguise."
It makes sense to be as long and tall as you possibly can, with gifted offensive players who can pass, dribble, shoot, cut, rebound, and generally not look like they're trudging through wet cement trying to defend a wing 25 feet from the hoop. The Bucks may be able to deploy units that can do that across all five positions, with Antetokounmpo, Middleton, Maker, Wilson, and Tony Snell essentially lining the court with reams of yellow tape. This is scary stuff.
In college, Wilson was able to fix critical defensive mistakes by recovering before too much damage was done. Open threes and blow-by layups turned into contested twos. His lateral quickness needs to improve, but Michigan coaches are confident it can, along with other areas of Wilson's game that make his skill set so attractive.
After Michigan was eliminated from the NCAA tournament, in a game where Wilson, a junior, made four threes, grabbed six boards, and blocked two shots, the Wolverines held a couple practices with everyone except the graduating seniors. Wilson dominated in ways that caught his coaches off-guard, from individual drills to five-on-five scrimmages.
"I was like, 'Oh my God, if scouts were in the gym right now they would be freaking drooling over themselves,'" Washington said.
There, they decided to put the rock in Wilson's hands and let him create in space a little bit, a terrifying concept if he continues to work on his ball-handling and is eventually given an opportunity to attack in Milwaukee's offense. He doesn't project to be a first or second option, but anyone that large who can confidently attack a closeout, corner crash, and engineer a screen-and-roll is devastating.
But that's all a best-case scenario. Wilson's frame needs to fill out and he has to approach each possession with a certain amount of belligerence. The existing technical skills make projecting what he can amount to such a tantalizing exercise, but it still takes a leap of faith to assume he'll get there.
It's telling that those who know him best were surprised to see him go as high as he did in the draft, but gambles have worked out for the Bucks before. If they hit on Wilson, this team could own the Eastern Conference with futuristic versatility like the NBA has never seen.