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Winner Wilson Has Potential To Develop Into Nets’ Heart-Shaped Gem
I was struck by Team USA Head Coach Steve Kerr’s response to a question on Monday about what position Josh Hart was playing at the FIBA World Cup in Manilla.
“He plays winner,” Kerr said.
Hart, who is employed by the Knicks for the next four NBA seasons, is the ultimate glue guy. Despite standing just 6-foot 4 and playing only 17.8 minutes per game, he is ranked seventh in the FIBA tournament in rebounds. As Team USA assistant coach Erik Spoelstra told Kerr, Hart not only comes away with more than his share of 50/50 balls; he wins the 30/70 balls as well. In short, Hart does all the little things to secure possessions that don’t always appear in box scores but often tilt outcomes.
Hart was a winner in college, helping Villanova to the 2016 NCAA title. He stayed four seasons before entering the NBA Draft as a 22-year old. In his final collegiate season, he was the Big East Conference’s Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. That didn’t propel him into the 2017 Draft lottery—the Jazz took him No. 30 overall.
Do you know who has an eerily similar resume? That would be Nets rookie Jalen Wilson, who signed a two-way deal after his second-round selection (No. 51 overall) in June’s Draft. With training camp a month away, there are plenty of folks who think Wilson will make more of an impact on the 2023-24 Nets than their two teenage first-round picks Dariq Whitehead and Noah Clowney.
Now, Hart and Wilson are two very different players—Hart is much quicker and better defensively while Wilson, at 6-foot 8 and 225 pounds, is significantly bigger. Though Hart had better three-point efficiency than Wilson in college, he has often struggled from long distances as a pro. Wilson, meanwhile, intrigued Nets fans with his solid 43.6/45.8/78.4 shooting split at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
And therein lies the most important difference: Hart has a proven professional track record whereas Wilson’s is a blank slate. Until he steps foot on an NBA court in a real game, his career could go in any trajectory.
Nevertheless, take a look at Hart’s boxes above that Wilson has checked before entering the league: NCAA Champion. Major Conference Player of the Year and First-team All American. Four years in college and drafted low at 22.
In fact, the NBA.com scouting report had this conclusion about Wilson in advance of the Draft: “Josh Hart has proved that rebounding prowess and good defense can counteract subpar shooting. Wilson will need to carve out his own niche, but proven winners are capable of doing so.”
A direct comparison with an emphasis on Wilson’s potential to be a winning player. It’s quite possible that Nets General Manager Sean Marks, who has a history of scoring with picks outside the lottery, may have connected on another one with Wilson.
I know the Summer League wasn’t much to go on, but Wilson made quite a few winning plays to boost Brooklyn as they advanced to the tournament final before falling to Cleveland in overtime. He was a demon on the offensive glass (3.0 per game, 12th-most among Summer Leaguers who played more than two games), ending one pool play affair in overtime with a hustle crash-and-putback. His physicality was also apparent in his ability to play through contact (7.4 FT attempts per game).
Wilson’s reported weaknesses, such as foot speed and explosion, obviously weren’t exposed too often in Summer League play. While he didn’t contribute much as a rim protector, his core strength enabled him to switch 1-through-5 without house-on-fire consequences. Wilson offsets his deficiencies with a high motor and basketball IQ. From my limited viewing, he seems to understand angles and is adept at reading plays at either end, both on and away from the ball. The one quibble I noted in an earlier post about Summer League was that he too often overhelped on a ballhandler’s first dribble—and then wasn’t quick enough to contest his man’s three-point look when he relocated.
It goes without saying that Wilson’s shooting will be a huge determining factor in whether he sees rotation minutes in Brooklyn this season as opposed to G League Long Island. He doesn’t have the quickest release, often bringing the ball down before going up, but it’s not Kessler Edwards funky. According to Sam Vecenie in The Athletic’s Draft Guide, Wilson’s subpar 33.7% three-point accuracy last season can be traced to taking tougher shots—nearly 2/3 of those attempts were tightly-guarded. When open, he knocked down 40.3% of his 60 catch-and-shoot 3s.
That’ll do in Brooklyn. In my book, the Nets can never have enough forwards who are both appropriately sized and can also space the floor.
They also need winning players to support Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson. This isn’t to say that guys like Nic Claxton, Spencer Dinwiddie, Dorian Finney-Smith, Royce O’Neale, et al don’t get after it. However, their record together, albeit in the smaller sample size following the February trades of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, suggested that something was missing. For instance: Post trade, only two teams recorded a worse second-chance points differential. The gulf then metastasized in their first-round sweep at the hands of Philadelphia, with the Nets registering a ghastly minus-14.5 points per game in second-chance points differential.
Thos extra possessions matter. Whether or not Wilson can help close that gap with his dogged rebounding efforts on both ends remains to be seen. Rookies typically don’t make that kind of an impact out of the gate. Given his reputation and limited tape, however, there is some hope that the Nets found a heart-shaped gem—a winning player.