When a team signs you to a third 10-day contract of the season, it probably means they like what you have to offer.
That’s where D.J. Wilson was back in March, when the Raptors extended that opportunity to him in recognition of how prepared he was for the first two 10-days that came his way via the COVID-19 hardship exception in December and January when the team was struggling to put healthy bodies out on the court.
Third time wasn’t the charm, though, as a sprained LCL in his left knee ruled him out for a couple months and led to Toronto releasing him despite the fondness for his talent as a versatile 6-foot-10 forward who seemed to consistently be in the right places at the right time. After knocking down the door with terrific performances for the OKC Blue in the G League, averaging 19.9 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks over 17 games and proving a fit both on and off the court for the Raptors, this was an unexpected setback.
“At first it was a tough pill to swallow,” Wilson said. “The momentum I had behind me and then being out the rest of the season, it kinda hurt. Especially knowing all the work I had put in up until that point, that year in particular. I got over it, it was nothing compared to what I’ve been through, it was just another small little hurdle. Luckily, I dodged a major bullet with what it was.”
Two months can feel like an eternity when being an athlete is your vocation, but Wilson had perspective because of a stress fracture of the fifth lumbar vertebra in his lower back he suffered as a 16-year-old. His ability to walk, let alone play basketball, was under threat and the strength he showed in recovering from that nightmare scenario to go on and be a first-round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft has since served as a reminder of what he’s capable of overcoming.
Through his recovery and rehab, Wilson maintained a line of communication with the Raptors and hoped that once he was able to get back on the court, the business relationship could be rekindled. Proving that there was nothing holding him back by the end of May, Wilson had earned himself another opportunity on Toronto’s Summer League roster and put pen to paper on a multi-year contract.
“I’ve still got work to do, I’ve still got a lot to prove,” Wilson said. “I know what I’m capable of and can’t wait to get out there and showcase it.”
Wilson’s mindset is to keep knocking on the door until someone answers and with that contract in place, he’s hoping to prove he can build on what he teased last season. His standout performance during the Raptors’ time in Vegas came against the Utah Jazz, when he finished with 22 points, nine rebounds, a steal, and a block including three 3-pointers and a perfect 5-for-5 at the free-throw line.
In his four games for the Raptors last season, Wilson attempted two 3-pointers and primarily scored on the roll. In four Summer League games, he made five of 15 attempts and it was the willingness and confidence to take the open looks that came his way that showed this is an element he’s intent on adding to his game. Naturally, the offensive opportunities available with the Raptors last season and could possibly have this season would be significantly different from what he had in Vegas as a starter and the most experienced campaigner on the team.
Like the other versatile forward/wing types on the roster who are looking to make the rotation, the three-point shot could be a separating factor come training camp. It was clearly one of the biggest weaknesses the Raptors had as a team last season, and having witnessed it first hand, Wilson knows what proving his merit from deep could do for the team.
“That’s something I work on religiously, every day,” Wilson said. “Especially with the makeup that we do have, I feel like with me being capable of being a knockdown three-point shooter that just opens the floor that much more and along with that just mixing in rolls, keeping a healthy dose of both can go a long way. That’s something I’ve been honed in on throughout the summer.”
What will also help Wilson heading into camp is the institutional knowledge he’s gained from having been a part of the program last season. He knows he fits the prototype of how the front office would like the current iteration of the Raptors to look, and he also has an understanding of what head coach Nick Nurse is like, and what needs to be done to make a good impression on him.
“I love it, they do things right here,” Wilson said of playing for Nurse. “He’s a great guy, communicative, he’s a player’s coach. He’s always saying something, giving advice here and there, even here at one of the Summer League practices, we probably heard his voice the most out of all the coaches and players and that shows the kinda coach he is.”
The 26-year-old has had his knock on the door answered but when training camp arrives it’ll be time to see if he can find a seat. It’ll be like a game of musical chairs, with several players vying for a spot but in the end the song will stop for some. Wilson knows he has a feel for the rhythm of the Raptors, and all he can control is bringing what they’re asking for as consistently as possible.
“They (The Raptors) just tell me to continue doing what I’ve been doing,” Wilson said of what the Raptors expect of him. “Doing what I was doing toward the end of the year when I was with them, continuing to play my game, roll when I roll, pop when I pop, continue to defend and be versatile.”