Red-hot Jamil Wilson finding his new role again

Jamil Wilson is finding his way inside, and Marquette is reaping the benefits.

Jamil Wilson is finding his way inside, and Marquette is reaping the benefits.

In May we documented how senior switchable Jamil Wilson had transformed each of his two seasons playing at Marquette, filling in at center as a redshirt-sophomore and seeing more time on the perimeter as a trailer in his redshirt-junior season.

As a senior, Wilson was expected to change once again. With 6-foot-9 junior-college transfer Jameel McKay arriving and 6-foot-8 power forward Steve Taylor expected to take on a larger role in his sophomore season, Buzz Williams would be given the luxury of using Wilson, his most versatile player, where he saw fit. That included Wilson’s most comfortable spot, the perimeter, where he improved as a 3-point shooter and midrange specialist off the dribble.

But as has always been the case with Marquette’s lineup, it didn’t play out as expected.

Days after Marquette Madness, McKay opted to transfer, ironically citing reasons about his role in the rotation. Taylor was a month behind schedule on offseason knee surgery and remains sidelined with lingering injuries that have cost him two games, and potentially more.

So the ever-changing Wilson, a true small forward with NBA skill, smarts and athleticism, was forced to change on the go. The “power forward” position under Williams is hardly a true one, and Wilson has still seen time on the perimeter (he’s averaging a career-best 1.1 3-pointers per game).

And though we’d have to ask Wilson exactly how long it’s taken him to adjust to this new-yet-familiar role in 2013-14 (hooray, home games coming up!), it’s apparent in his numbers that he is becoming far more comfortable in what’s being asked of him as an inside-oriented player.

That adjustment process was a difficult one. Through Marquette’s first five games, Wilson was a no-show. He scored no more than 13 points in any contest, shot better than 50 percent from the field just once — against the worst team in college basketball — and was unable to provide stability in Marquette’s losses to Ohio State and Arizona State.

He looked passive on the offensive end, deferring to other scorers who also were struggling to make any kind of shots, and roaming the perimeter without much desire to get inside for high-percentage looks.

Jamil Wilson has moved back inside, and Marquette's better off for it. (USA Today)

Jamil Wilson has moved back inside, and Marquette’s better off for it. (USA Today)

But as Williams continued to toy with his rotation, he played to his roster and began opting for a three-guard lineup the majority of the time (which we documented here). The main benefactor in that changing rotation has been Wilson.

It started with an opening-round win at the Wooden Legacy against Cal-State Fullerton. Wilson poured in a career-high 24 points on 10 of 14 shooting. He connected on all three of his 3-pointers, but more important was his work around the rim. He went 4-for-7 at the basket against the Titans, his best marks from that area all season. The seven attempts were more than half of the 12 attempts he had at the rim through his first five games combined.

Since then Wilson has lived at the rim. Including his marks against Cal-State Fullerton through Saturday’s performance in a win over IUPUI, Wilson is shooting 15 of 19 (78.9 percent) at the rim, far better than his pedestrian 6-for-12 mark prior to the Golden Eagles’ trip to California.

And during his five-game run of impressive efficiency, Wilson is even improving within it. In his last three games, Wilson has shot 26 of his 40 attempts (65 percent) inside the paint (Note: that’s different than “at the rim”). In Wilson’s first seven games, just 25 of his 69 attempts came inside the painted area (36.2 percent).

Consider, too, that three of the four toughest defenses Marquette has played (Wisconsin, San Diego St., George Washington) came in the latter half of Marquette’s schedule to date, per KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings. In fact, the average defensive efficiency rank Marquette faced during Wilson’s struggles was 151.4; in Wilson’s superb stretch the defenses have averaged a rank of 111.4.

The scoring numbers inside are one factor, and it’s been the main reason he’s a more efficient player everywhere else on the court, too.

As the de-facto back-up point guard, Wilson has averaged 3.8 assists in his last five games, up from 1.4 to begin the season. The move inside has helped his rebounding numbers, where Wilson is up to 6.0 rebounds in his last five after averaging just 4.6 in his first five.

His blocks and steals have regressed from a year ago, but still has Wilson for 0.5 Defensive Win Shares, tied for the best on the team. Per Synergy, opponents have scored 43 points on 61 possessions against Wilson. That 0.705 PPP-against is the best on the team of qualified players. Not surprising, opponents’ 27.8 field-goal percentage against Wilson is also best on the team (fun fact: Jake Thomas is second and third in both respective statistics).

Last week we asked if Wilson could take on a leadership role for Marquette, to be the “heart and soul” of what the Golden Eagles did. While is still isn’t fair, and might not ever be fair, to compare him to Jae Crowder — the player Williams was speaking about in that original quote — it’s apparent that Wilson’s move inside is coming full circle.

Marquette’s best talent is finding his new role after — for the third straight season — thinking he’d be doing something else when the season began. It’s not every season that a senior is forced to adapt to his surroundings — usually the rest of the roster does that for the lead player — but the Golden Eagles aren’t your average team.

One of Williams’ best traits is figuring out each season where each of his pieces fit in the grand scheme of his philosophy. In this trying season, having Wilson able to be that adapting piece is going to help Marquette in the long run and, more important, Wilson as a player.

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