Having never played a minute under Buzz Williams, Jamil Wilson was already being talked about as the replacement to first-round draft pick Jimmy Butler going into the start of last season. Expectations soared for the 6-foot-7 redshirt sophomore, as a starting role was all but guaranteed.
Yet, 10 games into his Marquette career, the Oregon transfer hadn’t started one game, had scored double-digit points only once, played more than 20 minutes only twice and had never grabbed more than five rebounds. The problem wasn’t even the failure to meet lofty, somewhat unreasonable, expectations, but rather that he looked timid and out of sorts out on the court.
Wilson had only attempted seven 3s and 11 free-throws up to that point, and picking up only 11 offensive rebounds. Instead of crashing the offensive glass for put-backs or freeing himself on the perimeter for dish outs, the Racine native settled for long, contested 2-point jumpers too frequently. His ball-handling was nonexistent and court-vision MIA. Defensively he was doing a better job, averaging a little more than a block a game, but still missed rotations too frequently for Buzz’s liking, leading to stints on the bench.
Was his talent that had made him a top-50 recruit coming out of high school gone? Did the hype get to his head? Why couldn’t he put it together?
“Like coach Wainright told me, if you build an $8 million house, and you let it sit there for a year and you turn the water off, no matter how much is put into it, there’ll still be rust in the pipes,” Wilson sagely noted during media day last Friday.
No amount of analysis or Tuesday Morning Point Guarding can express it better. He needed time to adapt.
The next eight games saw continual improvement. He played 20+ minutes five times, shot 15 free-throws and grabbed 14 offensive boards. He only averaged a little over five points per game during that stretch, but the aggressiveness missing early on was starting to show.
It all finally clicked in a game against Providence, as Wilson went 7-13 from the field (2-2 from beyond the arc), grabbing seven boards and blocking three shots. For the first time as a member of the Blue and Gold, Wilson looked assertive and confident.
And now with the absence of go-to scorers Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette will need that version of Wilson more than ever.
Yet, as Wilson himself reminded the media, “I’m not Jimmy, and I’m not Jae. I’m Jamil, and that’s all I can be.”
So what exactly can be expected of the junior?
For starters, having a healthy pair of big men in Davante Gardner and Chris Otule will work wonders on Wilson’s productivity. Wilson was forced to play as an undersized center for large stretches of time due to the injures of both Gardner and Otule, and although he played some of his best basketball at the 5, sliding back to the 3/4 will make it easier to take advantage of his length and athleticism.
“I still tease Chris and Davante that they have to win their 5 spot back from me,” Wilson noted. “It should be really helpful when we have team workouts this fall just to have Chris back out there and see how massive he and Davante are together. The space they take up is amazing.”
“Things that are much easier when Chris and Davante can move and are healthy. They excite me when they’re out there, because I know I don’t have to play against Yancy Gates.”
Read the last part of that quote again. That’s the key right there. The physical nature of bodying up Big East big men took a toll on Wilson both offensively and defensively. While Wilson admitted later in the interview that he prefers to play the 3 over the 4, there isn’t much difference between the two spots in Buzz’s system.
Still, no one will expect him to completely replace the Big East Player of the Year all by himself.
“Other people have to step up,” Wilson said. “That’s why the offseason is what it is,” he said. “People work on their games for opportunities to come like this.”
One aspect where he has made a concerted effort at improvement is in his leadership of the team. Although there is plenty of veteran experience, Wilson’s charismatic personality and on-court work ethic have thrust him into a leadership role on this year’s squad.
“He makes sure he’s always trying to help the next player,” sophomore Vander Blue said. “He’s not consumed with himself. I think he’s taken that role as a leader and a strong character on this team, and I think that’s really going to help us.”
A more tangible goal for Wilson will be remain aggressive throughout the course of a game, no matter the score. In Marquette’s eight losses last season, Wilson attempted only three free-throws total. In Marquette’s victories, he averaged 2.1 attempts per game. Nothing earth shattering, but much more respectable.
Again, this is where not guarding centers will come into play. Wilson had a tendency to pick up early fouls when playing at center that limited his playing time and overall tenacity around the rim. He averaged only a shade over 21 minutes played in Marquette’s losses. Matching up against players his own size, combined with smarter play, should help him stay out of foul trouble, increasing his overall impact by allowing him to stay on the floor for longer stretches of time.
Marquette won’t need him to be super-human to be successful this season. They don’t need Crowder’s beast mode or Jimmy’s heroics or Lazar’s world-on-his-back performances from Wilson. His rebounding needs clear improvement and his outside shot more accuracy.
There is no rust to shake of the pipes this year. The pieces are there, it’s just a matter of putting the puzzle together.