DeVante Jaylen Wilson, better know as DJ, was introduced by his namesake back in September.
Jalen Rose, who was the inspiration behind Wilson’s middle name, was going through the Michigan roster one by one. But when Rose arrived on the redshirt sophomore’s cue card for the introduction, he seemed surprised to find a fringe player proudly owning his number five.
Despite their shared jersey number, Rose and Wilson couldn’t be more different players. Rose was a guard. Wilson is a forward. Rose was an instant star. Wilson redshirted his freshman year. The differences go on to even the shorts they prefer. Rose famously loathed the short-shorts that were the trend in the early 90s. But Wilson is one of the few still sporting short-shorts today.
But after the Wolverines’ opening two games — both wins over Howard and IUPUI — it looks like the script is slowly starting to change.
Wilson came off the bench in both outings and put together the two most complete performances of his career thus far. The redshirt sophomore recorded a career high eight rebounds accompanied by nine points against the Bison, and followed that up with a career high 14 rebounds Sunday.
“Defensively, last year, we couldn’t get him on the floor,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “Now he’s spent a year getting better. If he says to himself, ‘I am a rebounder and defender,’ he’ll get baskets. These guys will find him when he’s open.”
The past two years, the Wolverines have lacked a dynamic forward who can aggressively crash the board and effectively guard the perimeter. Michigan has had to rely on players like redshirt junior guard Duncan Robinson and senior guard Zak Irvin to not only face-guard opponents, but also drop back and get in the mix for rebounds.
But Robinson and Irvin don’t have the height or build to matchup with more tradional forwards in the position. That’s why Wilson’s versatility has become noticeable on the court and on the stat sheet.
“Defense was much better,” Beilein said. “DJ Wilson is really changing the way we guard. We can switch more because he can guard five positions.”
Beilein knew all along Wilson had the ability and talent to find a major role on this Michigan roster. He just needed a boost in confidence he hadn’t received going into previous seasons.
Playing behind the likes of Irvin, Robinson and transfers Kam Chatman and Aubrey Dawkins has been daunting at times for Wilson. He could never figure out his place in that rotation.
But the departures of Chatman and Dawkins — paired with the arrival of the defensive and frontcourt minds of assistants Billy Donlon and Saddi Washington — have turned around the redshirt sophomore’s mindset.
“I think he was kind of passive on the fact that he himself is a great player,” said senior guard Derrick Walton. “He was playing behind some great players as well. I think he’s accepted the fact that he’s one of the key contributors on this team. His role is non-negotiable. We need him. I think that’s the biggest difference in his mindset.”
Wilson’s seven-point, 14-rebound, five-block performance against the Jaguars is just a preview of what the Wolverines are going to need out of him. Points will come for Wilson, but his defensive abilities are what Michigan is going to need to lean on the forward for.
He may not light up arenas like the most famous number five in Michigan basketball history used to do, but Wilson will still make his teammates and fans happy with the effort he’ll display on the court from here on out.
“I smile every time he walks into the game, because I know for a fact he’s going to take care of those things for us,” Walton said. “He’s been great. He had a great summer. He was great even last year when he didn’t get a chance to play. I’m just excited he’s getting his opportunity to shine. He’s going to be a great player.”