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Duane Wilson out to prove he’s the ‘real deal’ for Marquette

Duane Wilson is out to prove something this year. (Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

Duane Wilson is out to prove something this year. (Ryan Messier/Paint Touches)

Much of the news Thursday in Milwaukee surrounded Steve Wojciechowski and Marquette landing prized big man Henry Ellenson, a consensus top-10 recruit who will arrive next summer as the program’s highest ranked freshman since Doc Rivers. In the past 24 hours the 6-foot-10 power forward has been labeled a “program changer,” a “true All-American” and “the next big thing” for a program undergoing a significant culture and philosophy change in the wake of Buzz Williams’ departure in April.

But the current big thing? He’s already here, wearing No. 1 and ready to show Marquette, the Big East and the rest of the country why no one should have forgotten about Duane Wilson.

No one was more eager to speak with reporters at Thursday’s media day session inside the Al McGuire Center than Wilson, the 6-foot-3 guard from Milwaukee who missed all of last season with a stress fracture in his left leg suffered at Marquette Madness. For someone who hasn’t played organized basketball since he won a state championship 19 months ago, it wasn’t a surprise that Wilson, now a redshirt freshman, is chomping at the bit to get going.

“I’m pumped,” he said with a smile. “I can’t wait to get out there. I just want to do whatever it takes to win.”

In the short-term, it appears Wilson will be asked to play off the ball and on the wing.

He arrived in Milwaukee last season with a shot for real playing time at the point, his natural position and the spot he played in high school and AAU. Though Derrick Wilson was entrenched as the team’s starter, Junior Cadougan had graduated, Vander Blue had declared for the draft and fellow incoming freshman John Dawson was seen as more of a project than an immediate rotation player off the bench.

Fast forward a year and the script has flipped; Derrick Wilson returns for his senior year, Wojciechowski brought in BYU graduate transfer Matt Carlino and Dawson showed enough in short spurts last year to warrant playing time. However, at shooting guard Jake Thomas graduated, Todd Mayo left the team over the summer and top recruit Ahmed Hill wound up following Buzz Williams to Virginia Tech.

All of a sudden the point guard position is crowded, while the Golden Eagles are now searching desperately for perimeter help – 126 of Marquette’s 154 3-point makes last year are gone.

“I think he’s a guy who is capable of running a team, I think he’s a guy who’s capable of making plays off the ball,” Wojciechowski said of Wilson. “In fact, some of his best moments thus far early in the season have come off his ability to drive and score the ball. He has a knack for scoring and I think he’s, at times, going to be at the point position, I think at times he’s going to be off the ball.”

Wojciechowski is certainly still tinkering with rotations and lineups, but even Wilson himself admitted that “Coach Wojo really likes me off the ball with scoring.”

Wilson’s first role may be off the ball, but there’s two significant factors that will allow him to also thrive as a point guard, or more specifically, whenever he has the ball in his hands (be it on the wing or bringing the ball up the court).

The first is the offense Wojciechowski is implementing at Marquette. Sophomore Jajuan Johnson said there’s been “a lot of screens” as the team has worked through its new sets, and that everyone is still learning how best to attack defenses through the use of on-ball screens, curling off them for jumpers and rolling to the hoop or popping to the 3-point line.

For Wilson, it’s second nature. For four seasons at Dominican High School, Wilson ran pick-and-rolls seamlessly with teammate and five-star recruit Diamond Stone. Wilson also had his fair share of teammates who could pop out to the 3-point line, and his 24.8 points per game came in large part thanks to his ability to break down defenses off those on-ball picks, noting “that’s my favorite part of the game. It’s the simplest game and it’s an easy way to score and get assists.”

Wojciechowski, not naming Wilson specifically, told Paint Touches that on-ball screens could be a focal part of his offensive philosophy is the players fit the mold.

“When you’re defensive gameplanning against a team that’s really good at (on-ball screens), it takes a lot of thought to figure out how to stop it,” he said. “If we can become really good at it, I think it’s something that will be very effective for our group. And we have guys that should be able to make plays off the dribble, and the on-ball screen is one way to take advantage of it.”

If it seems like Wojciechowski is specifically setting up his point guards to succeed, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Wojciechowski, a former Duke point guard, has littered his staff with successful collegiate point guards, much in the same form as his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski. There’s Brett Nelson (Florida), Travis Diener (Marquette), Justin Gainey (NC State) and Tyler Thornton (Duke). With five former collegiate point guards and two current senior court generals to lean on, Wilson has all the tutelage he could ask for, and he said Thursday that he’s making sure to soak it all in.

“(The) transition has been very great for me. Wojo has done a great job of building a relationship with me, and then also the assistants we have, it’s a great relationship,” he said. “I feel like I’m around the best (assistants) in the country at playing my position. Coach Wojo coached the best with USA, so I feel like I’m around the best right now.”

Plenty could change between now and when Marquette kicks off its season in a month, but for now it appears Wilson will get an early chance to prove his worth. A down year with no postseason berth, an entire coaching staff overhaul and a graduate transfer brought in at his positions seems to have put Wilson, a top-60 recruit in 2013, on the back burner. But just ask any of his teammates if Wilson’s worthy of the praise he’s receiving, and you’ll get the same answer each time.

“He’s the real deal. He’s explosive, he can shoot, come off screens. He even surprised me more than I expected,” Johnson said. “He improved everywhere. He got stronger, faster, his jump shot improved more.

“He’s going to be really good.”

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