D.J. Wilson didn’t have the impact junior season he expected.
The 6-foot-9 forward put up modest numbers last season before a re-aggravated back injury sidelined him during Capital Christian High School’s second playoff game.
He watched from the bench last March as his teammates went on to win a second consecutive Sac-Joaquin Section Division V boys’ basketball championship at Sleep Train Arena.
“It was difficult, individually, for me but we won sections, so I celebrated – I had fun,” Wilson said.
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But today the quiet, unassuming senior will sign a national letter of intent with Michigan, the NCAA national championship finalist last season and one of the top men’s basketball programs in the country. Longtime area coaches – active and retired – believe he’s the area’s first boys basketball player to sign with a Big Ten Conference school.
Not bad for a player who was the fourth leading scorer (9.7 points) and second-leading rebounder (4.6) on his team last season and who saw major college recruiting interest evaporate after a stress fracture in his lower back sidelined him during the previous summer and forced him to wear a body brace.
Credit projection – the long and lean Wilson is still growing and already has a 7-foot-2 wingspan – a strong summer performance on the AAU circuit and a one-game matchup against Oakland’s 6-9 Ivan Raab, one of the nation’s top five Class of 2015 recruits, in a summer camp at Cal.
“Going into that game, there really hadn’t been much interest in D.J.,” said Capital Christian coach Devon Jones, who has coached Wilson since he was in elementary school. “He didn’t have a good junior season, he was still growing into his body and there were the injuries. A lot of people had backed off.”
In the game, Wilson battled Rabb basket for basket and rebound for rebound before the Cougars lost at the buzzer in the Cal camp semifinal.
“Ivan had just come back from playing with the USA (under 16) team,” Jones said. “But D.J. won the matchup. He was the more versatile, and he had never been that physical before. You could see the confidence.”
Wilson continued to play well later last summer in AAU tournaments in Southern California, Milwaukee and Las Vegas while his stock rose to No. 135 among Rivals’ top 150 Class of 2014 recruits.
The recruiters came calling and Wilson spent most of the end of summer narrowing his list of schools. from 30 to four – Michigan, Gonzaga, Cal and Harvard.
During his recruiting trip to Michigan the first weekend in October, Wilson and fellow recruit Devin Booker (who later committed to Kentucky) got the red carpet treatment typical for top recruits. That included attending Michigan’s 42-13 homecoming football win over Minnesota played in front of 111,000 fans.
But Michigan basketball coach John Beilein may have sealed the deal earlier by coming to Capital Christian and making quite an impression.
“They had all their assistants out here, including LaVall Jordan, who recruited me,” Wilson said. “Then coach Beilein came and met with the faculty and staff of the middle school and the high school. He toured the campus. That all took me by surprise. It showed that they were really interested in me. That was a big plus.”
Jones says he’s already hearing critics say that Michigan might be too big a jump for someone who has been viewed as lacking physicality and who has yet to average double-figure scoring as a high school varsity player.
But Wilson, who harbors NBA dreams, relishes that challenge.
“I don’t want anything easy,” he said. “I don’t want to come in and expect to start without working for it. I want to challenge myself and get the best out of myself.”
Jones expects Wilson will make the detractors into believers this season.
The small-school Cougars – 52-11 the last two seasons – are playing a big-time schedule, including major invitational tournaments in Chicago and Palm Springs.
In addition to Wilson, they have two other NCAA Division I signees, though for other sports.
Senior post Nifae Lealao has verbally committed to play football at Stanford and senior forward Tyler Schimpf is expected to sign today to play baseball at Texas.
“Nifae and I are like brothers,” Wilson said. “We’ve been playing basketball together since sixth grade. Tyler started playing basketball as a freshman, and now we work out together all the time. They’ve both worked so hard at their sports. They deserve it.”
Wilson credits his mother, Taniya Ballard, and godfather, Anthony Rice, for keeping him humble and focused on his classwork. Rice introduced him to basketball when he was 6 years old and has been like a surrogate father. He says his mother is both his toughest critic and biggest supporter.
Jones, who Wilson calls “another father figure in my life”, introduced the player to organized basketball with his AAU program, the Yellow Jackets.
“I remember watching him as a fifth grader in a recreational league,” said Jones, in his second season with the Cougars. “He was tall for his age, with big feet and a smooth jump shot. But he’d run down the floor and trip over his own feet. Even back then he was really tough on himself. He didn’t see a lot of playing time sometimes. But he worked hard. Now there’s the reality of him playing basketball for a career.”
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