Wilcox preparing for his final shot
He wasn’t on the team, but certainly was around and amid the team. He wasn’t technically one of the guys, but he was in a virtual manner. And yet he’s logged more hours in St. Vincent Center since last August than any Pacers player.
But also gratefully.
C J. Wilcox has had no choice but to entrench himself in the Pacers’ practice facility because rehabbing a ruptured Achilles tendon takes time and dedication. He did have one other option, actually, but that would have been to retired from basketball and give up on his goal of establishing himself as an NBA player. And he wasn’t quite ready for that.
Wilcox, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, has been practicing with the Pacers’ Summer League team this week but won’t travel to Las Vegas to play in the games. He hasn’t reached that stage of his recovery, but barring another unforeseen mishap – and he’s had a few of those – he’ll be ready to compete for a job in training camp in September.
He’s 28 now, so he knows failure to latch on to a roster spot of either the Pacers or their G League affiliate in Fort Wayne means the end of an NBA career that has sputtered against the burden of injuries.
He was a first-round draft pick of the Clippers in 2014, the 28th overall selection – right after Bogdan (not Bojan) Bogdanovic and before the likes of second-round picks Joe Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, Nikola Jokic and Jordan Clarkson. He’s played in 66 games for a total of 376 minutes and scored 132 points in three seasons, during which he was assigned to G League teams eight times. He’s also suffered injuries to his shoulder and knee that required surgeries and interrupted whatever momentum he had established.
He played 24 game for the Clippers in 2014-15, 23 games for them in 2015-16 and then was traded to Orlando, where he played 22 games in 2016-17. One of those was a 3 minute, 41 second end-of-game garbage time appearance against the Pacers in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in November.
He signed a two-way contract with Portland in August of 2017, but suffered a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery and sat out the following season. He averaged 9.2 points for the Pacers’ Summer League team last year and signed a two-way contract in August, but then blew out his Achilles in a pickup game in September, a week before training camp began.
“I caught the ball in the corner and tried to drive left and just fell,” he recalled following Tuesday’s morning workout. “I looked behind me and nobody was there, and that’s when I knew something bad had happened.“
It’s bad, indeed, when a player goes down and nobody is there. Ask Kevin Durant, who suffered a similar injury in the NBA Finals last month and is expected to miss all of the upcoming season. Wilcox says he thought someone had fallen on him at first. His leg was shaking when he looked down, and his worst fears were confirmed after a trip to the hospital.
Wilcox approached training camp last fall as if it was his last attempt at “making it” in the NBA. He seriously considered giving up on it after the injury, but the Pacers offered him the opportunity to rehab in their facility although they had no contractual obligation to do so. They waived him in October so they could sign Davon Reed to a two-way contract, but worked with him in rehabilitation as if he were C.J. Miles or C.J. Watson on a guaranteed deal.
“They didn’t have to do that,” he said. “That said a lot how they are as an organization.
“They offered to help me with my rehab and be here with me every day when they could be home with their families. That was big of them to help me out. It’s paying off.”
The players embraced him, too. He’s had a locker all along, and was treated as an equal.
“It was awkward, but the guys have been great,” he said. “Every time they would see me it was like ‘Hey, you’re looking good, keep working.’ It would have been a lot harder if they didn’t say anything to me. But they were great to me.”
That was particularly true of Darren Collison, whom he had met before joining the Pacers.
“He would always say to keep your head up, watch film, stay positive,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox’s rehab kept him in St. Vincent Center six days a week at first, and then five, for about four hours per day. He worked with head trainer Josh Corbeil when the Pacers were in town, and with training staff interns when the team was on the road. He met with team psychologist Dr. Chris Carr as well to deal with the mental challenge.
The process was as methodical as it was painful, 8 ½ months of baby steps toward his status today.
“Every couple of months there was some achievement I had,” he said. “I would run or cut and that would give me motivation going forward.
“Physically I feel close now. A lot of it is mental, getting over that hurdle. With more repetition I’ll get more confident.”
Wilcox will go back to his home in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks, then return to continue his comeback to a career that has yet to take hold. The optimistic scenario is that he is able to play with the Mad Ants next summer and earn his way onto an NBA roster from there. But he’s aiming higher than that.
“The hope is to make the (Pacers),” he said. “That’s my goal. If that doesn’t happen, take the next step and go down there (to Fort Wayne) and try to contribute and work my way up.”
One last time.
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