D.J. Wilson deep dive: Everything you need to know about the new Houston Rocket
With their first pre-deadline trade in the bag Houston sold one of their veteran assets, PJ Tucker, for draft capital from Milwaukee. Also incoming were DJ Augustin and DJ Wilson, the latter who we’ll be focusing on in this film study. It’s hard to tell what Houston’s intentions are with Wilson, although the fact that they clearly spent some time looking to expand the deal, and sent out the PR release without even mentioning him, hardly indicates they valued him as a real prospect. But Wilson can’t be aggregated with another player in a trade this season, so the only reason he wouldn’t finish the year in Houston would be if somebody specifically came calling for him, and him alone. That seems unlikely. Wilson got a handful of minutes in his Rockets debut this week and will almost certainly get more opportunities between now and the rest of the season to showcase what ability he has. I watched all his minutes back from this year and we’ll dive into how he looks. The topline conclusion is he’s quite clearly a good defender at an NBA level, although how he will look once plucked from Milwaukee’s well-oiled machine into Houston’s chaos is a little less certain. Unfortunately his offensive game has not just stagnated, it’s gone backwards, with his role reduced each year in Milwaukee. Is Wilson a diamond in the rough, or just another young player who Houston will cycle in and out of the doors as they continue a roster churn in their rebuild? Let’s dig in.
Wilson's biggest strength by far is his excellence as the drop defender in the pick n roll. In Milwaukee this was the coverage almost exclusively and I rarely saw him have a bad possession. In the compilation below see how he is able to jump back and forth between the driver – cutting off the mid range pullup – but stunting back to the roll man to avoid the lob. He constantly positions himself to play both at the same time. He throws in multiple good actions in one possession, can close out on the pick n pop, and he steps up higher when necessary against a deadly pullup threat like Jayson Tatum. Compare this to what Houston has seen from Justin Patton as the pick n roll defender, and the difference is night and day. Just in terms of the positioning and discipline required to play such coverage, Wilson immediately comes in as Houston’s best drop big – although you might take Wood’s length and shot blocking ability over him.
Wilson’s length comes in very handy as the drop big, because he can cede a little more ground to cover the drive but he's never too far away to contest a shot or closeout a popping big.
Wilson just makes good reads. In this play Darius Garland turns the corner on the screen going downhill quickly and DJ Augustin is completely out of the play, but Garland perhaps telegraphs the pass and Wilson reads the play and blows up the lob pass to Larry Nance Jr.
The below play is a perfect example of how good Wilson is as the drop big. He makes multiple reads in one play. First he helps cut off Dotson as he drives to the rim, before recovering to his man. But then a second guard rounds the screen and is driving downhill, so Wilson again gets in front to divert him away from the rim. As Wade rises to make the pass to McGee, Wilson quickly scrambles back and contests McGee's shot. That sort of back and forth switching between drivers and the big is really just brilliant defense.
Wilson is also a very smart off-ball defender. He knows where to be when he's helping from the weakside and is able to get there in time to cut off plays. He shows real flashes of being a weakside shot blocker and contester.
In this play he does a good job stopping Jeff Teague’s drive and maintains his help position at the nail once Teague passes out. This allows him to slide over to get in front of Jayson Tatum after Tatum completely blows by his defender in the corner off the pump-fake. These plays unfortunately could go unnoticed if it weren’t for the good defenders around him.
To play this sort of defense you need a team of 5 smart guys making effort plays, allowing the defense to be on a string. Tatum beats his man, Wilson slides over, Middleton at the top of the key immediately starts zoning up the two players he is now defending, and Connaughton is sprinting across court to get to the open man. These are the sort of plays which make me wonder how he will fit in Houston. If the Rockets are healthy and he’s slotting in alongside Oladipo and Wall on the perimeter, with Wood in the paint and he and Tate helping, then he's going to look good. But if he’s playing in a series of disjointed lineups like the ones Houston have been forced to throw out the last two months, some of his smart help defense just isn't going to matter.
Wilson can also fly around the court and rotate himself, closing out hard on the open shooter.
Next we have the clip below, which I wanted to separate as you can clearly see how he is reading the plays ahead of him as the backline defender. He's watching Steph Curry in the pick n roll and knows he's looking to curl around Looney and drive right - where there is no help defender as the corner is emptied. This means Wilson has to be ready to slide over from the weakside and contest if Curry beats his man. He does so perfectly, and is even able to get back infront of the cutting Bazemore and block his shot attempt.
Wilson was rarely asked to switch onto ballhandlers this season but looked promising whenever he did. In the two clips below he was showing onto Steph Curry and you can see him using every inch of his body and wingspan to help contest the pullup 3. When Curry drove to the rim he pulled off decent footwork to stay with him, but was caught using that off-arm for the foul – which many better defenders find themselves having to do with Curry.
Against Portland he found himself in a switching scheme more during garbage time minutes, and excelled. On the first clip below you’ll his stellar defense against Anfernee Simons. Pay close attention to his footwork. Being able to shift L-R to cut off the driving angle as a smaller and faster ballhandler drives is really superb work, and there are other examples after of him being able to keep the guard in front of him.
When he’s meeting players at the rim Wilson shows good discipline, using his standing reach to put up multiple vertical contests without fouling, whether against a driving guard or a center in the low post.
Where Wilson falls into trouble is often due to his lack of strength. While he's certainly put on muscle and weight, he can still get pushed around by a majority of NBA bigs. You can see in the clip below Kelly Olynk gets a step on him as he hesitates and drives, Wilson cuts him off and tries to use his torso to bump him - and it’s the right idea, his arms are up and he makes good contact – it just doesn’t amount to anything. He doesn’t have the core strength to make an impact and Olynk just bullies through him, eventually drawing the foul.
He also had a torrid time matched up with Chicago’s Christiano Felício, although to be fair Felício is a bowling ball of a man.
Wilson’s rebounding is a bit of a mixed bag. He has all the physical tools: the height, wingspan and elevation are all there. His DREB% has fluctuated between 20-23% in Milwaukee – excellent for a PF but quite unspectacular for a center. Basketball Reference has him splitting his playing time about evenly between the two positions. He averages 4.2 defensive boxouts per36, good for 14th in the NBA this season, which is a point of improvement for him as he has never been in the top 30 before. But of the 19 players who average 4 boxouts or more per36, Wilson is dead last by some margin in the amount of his boxouts that actually lead to rebounds, whether by the team or himself.
There are times when he looks like he's got all the right tools to pull down boards. He can elevate over everyone else. He knows to collapse in from the weakside position to get inside position.
He has a good habit of following the play and chasing down a potential rebound when he sees an open lane from the perimeter.
However, as you can see in the second clip there, he often arrives too early and is too close to the basket. Once you notice it, it's really quite alarming how often he goes for the rebound and the ball just sails past his arms. I don't know whether it's just bad luck, or whether he is completely misjudging the flight of the ball, but he's often just not quite in the right place to snag the board.
Lastly I did notice Wilson is a good and consistent communicator on defense. He knows where to be and what to do when he's in the action. When another player is involved, or if he is closeby as the help defender, he's pointing - and presumably talking - to direct traffic.
Wilson has always been a low usage player for Milwaukee. They would have wanted to see him expand his game over the last 4 years, but he's shown little sign of being able to do that on offense. When he tries to overexert himself passing, it usually ends in a turnover.
He also doesn't have the vision to be able to act as a playmaker at the top of the key. This limits him to only the most simple handoff actions. In the plays below he first misses an over the top pass when two defenders show to him, which would have been an easy layup for his teammate. On the second, he is momentatily doubled and misses the player wide open from 3 next to him. This is a shame because at his height he's easily seeing over the defenders.
Wilson was generally an afterthought in Milwaukee's offense. He can make himself useful doing some small things, but there's been a low ceiling on how much help he offers on that side of the ball. In the first play below he's in the dunker spot and moves towards the corner as the ballhandler drives, opening up space at the rim by taking the center away with him. It's a smart play, but using the dunker spot for spacing has been an emphasis for Milwaukee all season and Wilson is doing nothing spectacular. The second play sees him more active. He sets a good weakside screen for the shooter to curl around and then fades for the corner 3 which he drains.
And this is what Wilson has been working on, hitting the 3-ball. He's made some progress. He's a career 32.5% shooter currently converting 34.5%. He's always hit the corner 3, a career 44.4% shooter currently hitting 50% from there for the season. But we're talking about 81 shots and this is his 4th NBA season. Silas and the Rockets should feed him as many corner 3s as possible and see how legit that shot is.
You can see the work Wilson has been putting in on correcting what was once quite a flat arc. See the two shots below, the first from the 18-19 season and the second from earlier this season. From similar positions, you can see the higher arc Wilson now has.
Wilson also had a sort of hitch in his shot, where rather than shooting in one fluid motion once he reached the top of his jump he would push out - his arms outstretching while his body almost fades away - see the screenshot below from a 2018 attempt (this was from a set shot).
What he's trying to do now is have more of a straight body when going up and letting go of the ball. Compare to a screenshot of a recent 3-point attempt from this year.
He's still inconsistent in doing this, and I've seen him revert back to his old form on shots this season, but it's something he's presumably continuing to work on. With that and the higher arc, you can at least see the progress he's made in the gym and how that is translating in-game.
Where you'd like to see Houston use Wilson more is in the pick n roll. We've seen Silas equip KJ Martin as the backup 5 and have him screen and roll. Wilson should also get opportunities to do this. For whatever reason, Milwaukee reduced his roll man duties year on year. In 2018-19 22% of his possessions were as the roll man, with a poor 0.85 ppp return. In 2019-20, his frequency dropped to 12%, but his efficiency spiked to 1.10 ppp. You'd have liked to see that continue into this year, but starting the season his roll man usage has been so low he doesn't even qualify for NBA tracking data.
Wilson has a nice push shot from the lane when he catchs off the pick n roll. He's 8-17 on these attempts for his career however, such low volume which shows how little he gets those opportunities. Richaun Holmes he is not.
I'd also like to see him slips these screens a little quicker and roll harder all the way to the rim. It seems he likes to make contact on the screen even when it's unneccessary, angling his body into the defender away from the basket and then turning to roll. This slows him down some and often the ballhandler is ahead of him on the play, meaning he gets the ball nearer the free throw line, rather than rolling harder for a lob pass. This is the biggest issue in Wilson's offensive game. His shots at the rim have declined every year in the league, falling from 31.3% within 3 feet in his rookie year all the way to a paltry 0.7% this season. With his size, especially playing lots of his minutes as a backup center, it's criminal that he isn't being used as a roll man more. If he's just relegated to spot up shooting, it's very unlikely he will ever be good enough from the outside to warrant significant playing time. Compare that to KJ Martin, who takes 59% of his shots from within 3 feet.
What we need to see more of, and quickly, are alleyoops like these.
He has the elevation and hangtime to be a threat around the rim, we just rarely see it.
One of the biggest gripes you hear from Milwaukee fans, and no doubt internally within the organisation, is that Wilson can be passive - and has shown little signs of change. This could very well be why he isn't getting to the rim (or the line). It's easy to see the source of such frustration. In the first clip below he gets his defender off the ground with a pump-fake but doesn't attempt the drive, stopping the play and passing out. In the second, he has the ball in transition with a lane to a rim, although he would have to go through contact, but completely turns it down. That's a waste of his athleticism.
The problem is even if you ask Wilson to be more daring, to put the ball on the floor and make something happen, he's just not very good.
And passing up open 3s like the one below has to be something he eradicates from his game ASAP.
Whether or not Houston will hang onto Wilson past this year depends on how much faith Coach Silas has in his offensive game. Will he run more pick n roll though him as the big man? Will he draw up plays utilising him as a cutter towards the rim? Or, as Milwaukee did more and more each year, will he be standing around the perimeter waiting for an open shot? If it’s the latter, he better get hot from deep. It’s unfortunate, but it seems for lots of players shifting between teams looking for a second chance, it really only comes down to their first 30 or so shots from 3. I’m not crying injustice, because the idea that Wilson could thrive in a different offensive role is purely hypothetical. He’s shown just the smallest of glimpses of it in the past. But it would be a shame to not give him a real chance to show off what he can do, considering the direction this team is going in.
The real issue is Kenyon Martin Jr. Everything I want to see Wilson do, KJ already does. Better. Wilson is by far the smarter and more accomplished defender, which you would expect considering he’s been playing for a great defensive team his entire NBA career, but on offense KJ has been more dynamic. KJ only just turned 20 years old, and he’s under a cost-controlled rookie deal for years to come. He’s already built chemistry with the team, especially Kevin Porter Jr from their G-League venture. DJ should not get in the way of KJ, it’s that simple. One is 5 years younger, so by definition has more untapped potential. But hopefully there is room for them both to develop in the second half of this season.