The Wolverine

January 2017

The Wolverine: Covering University of Michigan Football and Sports

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JANUARY 2017 THE WOLVERINE 43 BY JOHN BORTON S ometimes a really big miss occurs right before someone makes it big. That's how it played out for redshirt soph- omore forward D.J. Wilson. The newest Wolverine absorbing the intense glare of the college bas- ketball spotlight knew nothing of it his first two seasons in the program. As a gangly, under-developed true freshman out of Capital Christian School in Sacramento, Calif., he played in a handful of games before tweaking a knee and redshirting. Last season, he averaged only 6.1 minutes per game, waiting his turn, albeit not always patiently. Head coach John Beilein loved the dimen- sions — 6-10, 240 — but not the miss- ing dimension of defensive prowess. The Wolverines frequently found themselves in contests closer than backsides in The Big House, and Beilein felt he couldn't afford to leave Wilson on the court for long. It wasn't a defensive miscue, though, that marked the nadir of Wilson's red- shirt freshman season in the shadows. "The lowest point for me was dur- ing the Big Ten Tournament," he re- called. "We were playing Purdue, and it was a pretty close game in the first half. I checked in at the end of the first half, and we were in transition. "I got a wide-open layup. I was by myself, pretty much, and I missed it — I smoked it. I got subbed out, and I really never saw the court from there on out, for the rest of the Big Ten Tournament and when we made it to March Madness. "Right after that, I knew I messed up." He didn't really discuss that emotional plummet with coaches or teammates, choosing to keep it bottled up inside. He'd spoken ear- lier in the year with veterans on the team, such as Caris LeVert and Spike Albrecht, and their message stayed consistent — trust the process. Such an approach kept Wilson from thoughts of looking elsewhere. "I never really thought about that," Wilson insisted. "It never crossed my mind. I knew once I committed here, I was going to be a man of my word and stick it through. I knew my time would come eventually. "Patience is a virtue. When I saw all the other players start to leave, I saw a spot start to open up. A lot of them were at my position. I stayed the course, and it began paying off." It's paid off in a fashion as sizeable as Wilson himself. He earned his first start as a Wolverine in the third game of this season, against Marquette. Through Michigan's first 11 games, Wilson averaged 8.0 points and a team-leading 7.0 rebounds per con- test. He also offered a growing de- fensive presence, centered around his ability to leap and move laterally, supplying a team-best 16 blocked shots in the early going. He's far from a finished product, Beilein quickly cautions. That's what he'd expect, though, from a big man still distilling raw physical assets into overall court competence. "The key, right now, is his develop- ment," Beilein stressed. "He's still awkward with a lot of things. It's every day, teaching him some funda- mental things … landing on two feet, grabbing the ball with two hands. "He's probably younger in the game than you think, because he's just maturing. I just like that he's got some athleticism, and he's got some desire to get in there and mix it up. "He's working to have a great bal- ance in what he does. He's got to have great balance, as far as his posture." Wilson received strong input on his posture, and his attentiveness, long be- fore his present head coach came along. He spent his first five years of life in Mt. Shasta, Calif., a town at the southern edge of the Cascade Mountain Range. He eventually wound up with his mother, Taniya Ballard, in Sac- ramento, but still visited Mt. Shasta frequently enough to feel no shock of Michigan's snow upon becoming a Wolverine. Mom had already supplied a little shock and awe, when necessary, dur- ing his formative years. One such occasion involved a playoff game during his junior year of high school basketball. He didn't like how he'd performed in the contest and emerged from the locker room not emotionally ready to gracefully handle the inevitable "good game" comments from family and friends gathered out on the court. "I didn't really want to talk about it," he admitted. "I came out of our team's locker room, and people were out on the court to greet me. "I had a bad attitude. She could see it. She pulled me aside, and then she pulled me outside. She said that's unacceptable. She talked to me about my attitude and told me things I needed to do on the court. "I'm not one to disrespect my mom, but I didn't want to hear it. I didn't make great eye contact with her. As people were leaving the gym, she slapped me across my face. I straightened up real quick, said, 'Yes ma'am,' this and that, and went back in the gym, greeted everybody and went on from there." It wasn't the first time Wilson had ever been on the receiving end of some tough love from Ballard, with whom he's incredibly close and conducts sev- eral weekly phone conversations. The former basketball and volleyball ath- lete also served as his athletic instruc- tor when he was younger — from afar. Wilson first jumped into organized basketball in the sixth grade, join- ing a highly competitive recreation league, featuring eight teams in his age division. Forty-some players awaited the call, sitting on benches while eight coaches made their selections. When INTO THE FIRE D.J. Wilson Comes Out Of The Shadows For The Wolverines Wilson averaged 8.0 points and a team- leading 7.0 rebounds per game during the Wolverines' 8-3 start. PHOTO BY LON HORWEDEL

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