If you had sat in on some of the informal scrimmages staged in the days leading up to John Kuester’s first training camp, you’d have guessed that 14.5 and 5.8 would be Wilcox’s numbers for a season, not as a four-game outlier of his time as a Piston – which could be down to its final 12 games with Wilcox a pending free agent.
“All our bigs give us energy, but he gives us a different kind of energy,” said another of the Pistons who took part in those informal scrimmages that summer, Will Bynum. “When he dunks, he’s getting the crowd into it, he gets his teammates into it. He’s out there blocking shots, he’s talking on defense, he’s helping, he’s extremely active. Chris is a great player. He just needs a chance.”
It started going south on Wilcox the first day of training camp that season when he hurt his back. It lingered all year, as back injuries often can, making simple tasks like tying his shoes a painful chore.
Between the back and assorted nagging injuries, Wilcox was in and out of the rotation, playing in 34 games and starting 10, averaging 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds. He came back to camp this season in peak condition and generated more buzz than anyone with his play in that first week. But on Oct. 2 at the open practice at The Palace, Wilcox pulled a hamstring muscle and wound up losing ground in the battle for frontcourt minutes – even with Jonas Jerebko going down with an Achilles tendon tear three days later.
Wilcox doesn’t have the shooting touch of Austin Daye or Charlie Villanueva, the durability and manic intensity of Ben Wallace or the all-around skill package of rookie Greg Monroe, but his ability to make impact plays above the rim makes him unique among Pistons big men.
If he can stay healthy for long enough to give the coaching staff confidence they can count on him, Wilcox is tough to ignore for his explosive leaping – put into full evidence with his tip dunk to put the Pistons ahead for good in last week’s win over the Knicks – quickness around the rim and ability to run the floor.
“He’s a finisher,” Bynum said. “We run a lot of pick and rolls, so most of the time he’s going to be the guy who will be the finisher. He’s been doing an excellent job of finishing and he’s been defending and rebounding, as well. And he’s one of the best runners in the league. A lot of big guys can’t keep up with him running the court.”
Wilcox came back off of his 13-point, 12-rebound outing against the Knicks to score 18 on 9 of 10 shooting in only 18 minutes at Atlanta on Sunday when he was limited by foul trouble. Much of Wilcox’s scoring in a season in which he’s upped his averages to 6.1 points and 4.3 rebounds has come off of offensive rebounding or lob passes, but in Atlanta the Pistons went to Wilcox in the post and he looked to score.
“I think I’m just being more aggressive,” he said. “In the past, I’d be like, ‘OK, I’ll just wait for the rebound to come off.’ Now I’m starting to be more aggressive, starting to get the feel of the game. My teammates are starting to believe in me a little more, too, and I’m coming in every night and getting some work in, so I’m starting to feel comfortable.”
“He’s been outstanding,” said John Kuester, who has been using Wilcox to start second and fourth quarters lately and has preserved that role for him even since moving Ben Wallace back into the lineup after his return from time off following his brother’s death. “The things we’ve been working on during practice have carried over to what we’re doing in games. He’s one of the guys who can play above the rim. This is an important year for him. He has played with a purpose more so than I’ve seen in the past.”
Wilcox’s various injuries have compounded for him a dilemma that confronts every NBA player: They need consistent minutes to find their niche, yet aren’t rewarded with consistent minutes until the coach feels they’ve merited them.
“I always tell people, especially when you’re coming off that bench and you’re not playing a consistent amount of minutes each and every night, it’s hard to stay in the rhythm you would like,” said Tayshaun Prince, part of the same 2002 draft class as Wilcox. “Last year was tough for him, but the last couple of weeks Wilcox has had the opportunity to play consistent minutes every night.”
“He’s been getting consistent time,” Bynum said. “He hasn’t been snatched in and out of the rotation. He has had a chance to go out there and make mistakes. With that alone, it gave him extra confidence. Right now, he’s in a comfortable zone.”
Jerebko, Wallace, Villanueva and Jason Maxiell are all under contract for next season and Monroe is central to the franchise’s future. Daye has shown he can play power forward, even if his future is more likely at small forward. The Pistons figure to be picking in the top 10 in a draft where the strength is at power forward.
Will there be room for Wilcox next season? Will there be a robust market for him in free agency despite the limited exposure and production of his two seasons in a Pistons uniform?
It’s not a stretch to say the season’s final 12 games will answer those questions. If Wilcox builds off his last four games and shows he can maintain not only consistent results but good health, surely there will be teams interested in offering him a spot next season and beyond.
“I just know these last games, I’ve got to go out and finish strong,” he said. “I’ve got to go out and play hard and keep doing what I’m doing. Hopefully, I can leave a good impression on them when it is time for me to re-sign. I just want to be in a situation where I can grow and where I can help.”