After rocky January, Jayhawks need Jalen Wilson to rediscover his 'swagger'
Earlier in the season, Kansas redshirt freshman Jalen Wilson emerged as a welcome surprise for the Jayhawks. The type of player who produced so much more than was expected out of him that it looked like KU just might spend the whole year ranked in or just outside of the top five.
Now coming off their fourth loss in five games, the Jayhawks need that Jalen Wilson back.
Saturday at Tennessee, Wilson went from starter to reserve as head coach Bill Self continued looking for a refinement that could get his team trending upward again.
Turning Wilson into the sixth man didn’t do the trick, even though the long, 6-foot-8 guard’s recent struggles were at the heart of the move.
“I don’t think Jalen has been very good of late,” Self shared after KU’s 80-61 loss in Knoxville, Tenn. “That’s not a knock to him, but he needed to be put in a situation probably to reevaluate some things and play to his strengths.”
Coming off a scoreless outing in KU’s home win over TCU earlier in the week, Wilson finished with 10 points on 2-for-7 shooting, with nine rebounds (three offensive) and six assists at Tennessee.
But one of KU’s many issues in defeat was that most of Wilson’s production came too late. The Vols already led 56-35 in the second half before Wilson gave the Jayhawks eight points, six rebounds and five assists in his final 13 minutes on the floor during the blowout.
When he first subbed in for KU in the first half, the Vols only led 9-8. While there were others to blame, too, in the stretch that followed, by the time Wilson checked out roughly six minutes later, Tennessee’s lead had grown to 11.
The hope was that Wilson, who was all energy and bounce back in December when he was routinely catching KU opponents off guard, could rekindle that as an active attacker off the bench. The Jayhawks needed a burst from him from the moment he checked in. But they got in the first half more of the lukewarm Wilson that went through a bit of an up and down funk in January — not coincidentally, so did the Jayhawks, finishing the month 3-5.
There’s no doubt the vibrant, confident Wilson who keyed KU’s strong response to a season-opening loss to Gonzaga is still in there. And an injection of bravado from this team’s unexpected December star would uplift these Jayhawks.
It will be up to him to find that best version of himself if Wilson wants to help the Jayhawks (11-6) turn this season around in February.
Self laid out during his postgame video press conference exactly what they need from Wilson.
“Rebounding. Energy. Playing downhill. Being a good passer,” Self began.
They also need their biggest guard stretching the floor, which he did late against Tennessee, going 2-for-3 from long range in the second half.
“I thought he did some things tonight that were pretty positive offensively,” Self said. “Now defensively, not very good — nobody was.”
Wilson is athletic enough and smart enough to meet Self’s defensive standards, as well. And making strides on that end of the court, too, would do wonders for this KU team that can really labor offensively when 3-pointers aren’t falling (see: Saturday’s 6-for-24 woes).
Like many of KU’s guards, Self pointed out, Wilson has to play better defense before the ball reaches his man’s hands, so that shooters are catching it farther out and Wilson — or any other defender — can force a would-be shooter to drive.
As Wilson, the Jayhawks hope, works his way back to being an impact player on both ends of the floor, junior David McCormack downplayed Wilson’s recent trials.
“I don’t think anything’s going on with Jalen,” McCormack said. “I think everybody gets into their ruts — I know I’ve had mine. So he needs people in the program, coaches, teammates to help him out.”
The Jayhawks are smart to want to assist Wilson and lead him toward rediscovering his strut. When he was hitting the glass and scoring over anybody and everybody inside and out in December, KU was playing its best basketball of the season.
That now feels even longer ago after a January filled with potholes and unpredictability.
Self knows all of his players need to be better as KU returns to Big 12 play with just nine games left in the regular season, and March and the postseason just beyond the horizon.
“But with him,” Self added of Wilson, “obviously playing with the swagger that he played with early would be very beneficial.”