Mar 3, 2013, Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies guard C.J. Wilcox (23) stands on the court during a break in action against the Washington State Cougars during the second half at Alaska Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Huskies Basketball: Should C.J. Wilcox Return To UW Next Season?

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“You think Wilcox will head to the NBA?”

That’s a question I’ve gotten probably twenty or thirty times in the last couple months, both on twitter and in person from friends and classmates. It’s something even the most casual of fans will keep track of, especially considering that both Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten declared for the draft after last season. What have I been telling them? Well, each and every time, I’ve started off by saying I don’t know.

To answer in any other way would be ridiculous. I have never spoken to Wilcox. We are not friends. He doesn’t send me texts to keep me updated on the latest developments in his internal decision-making process. So I simply have to attach that disclaimer to retain any credibility or honesty. Next, I have added that I’ve heard a few people that I respect a lot express confidence that he will return, but that there are solid reasons for him to stay, and solid reasons for him to go.

As you might expect, that doesn’t make for a very satisfying answer, especially for a more casual fan that is looking for a yes or no answer. Oh well. At least that answer lays the ground work for a pretty decent post.

March 14, 2013; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Oregon Ducks guard Damyean Dotson (21) shoots over Washington Huskies guard C.J. Wilcox (23) during the first half in the second round of the Pac 12 tournament at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

You see, with a guy like Terrence Ross, there were tons of reasons for him to go. He had already put up NBA-level stats as the go-to guy for a full season. He had already found some level of success for the program in 2011, when the Huskies won the Pac-10 Tournament. He had scouts telling him that a lottery pick was locked in. The only real reason he would have stayed would have been to pull a Jake Locker, to forgo the draft another year in order to help his team find greater success in one last season. And while that would have been cool of him, he certainly didn’t owe anyone that extra year. It was his right to go early, and no one really seemed to hold a grudge over it.

On the other side of that is Tony Wroten. He declared for the Draft after only a single year, a year which saw him score very well, but also a year that helped to reveal several gaping holes in Wroten’s game. Bad shooting, inconsistent defense, turnover issues, and questionable intangibles. Not to mention a feeling that he owed the program another year in a way that Ross certainly didn’t. Wroten missed 4 potential game-changing free throws in a row in the first round Pac-12 Tournament loss to Oregon State, and throughout the regular season his erratic play and questionable attitude had fans and media debating whether he was a plus or a minus for the team as a whole. But he knew that a first-round pick was all but certain based on raw potential and physical talent alone, and he left.

Wilcox is facing a vastly different set of circumstances, a totally distinct set of pros and cons that are incredibly balanced. On one hand, C.J. has already spent four years at Washington. He redshirted his first season, and has played three additional years. He isn’t debating whether or not to bolt after his freshman year, like Wroten, or after his sophomore year, like Ross. He has already stayed much longer than the average NBA prospect.

Not only should that factor into how fans look at this decision, it has to factor into Wilcox’s decision itself. After spending four years on campus, the sharpshooter is already 22 years old, which is two or three years older than the freshmen and sophomores that are coming out early. Clearly, 22 is early in an NBA players career, so it may seem odd that it should matter, but NBA GMs and coaches draft a player with the idea (or the hope, when it comes to late 1st or 2nd round picks) that they will be a building block of sorts. The difference between a rookie at 19 and a rookie at 22? Three years of value. That probably won’t damage Wilcox’s stock much at all if he declares now, but if he stays for that redshirt senior year, he will be 23 before conference season even starts, and halfway to 24 by the time a team picks him (his birthday is 12/30/1990).

As I said, it might seem ridiculous, and it may very well be, but the difference between 22 and 23 is at least mildly significant. 22 is a normal age for a rookie that was in college for four years, even if that is, in itself, a bit rare in the NBA. 23 is older, it’s a bit of a red flag, it stands out as well above average. If a GM is picking what he hopes will be his shooting guard of the future, and it’s a near toss-up between Wilcox and some 19 or 20 year-old prospect, that GM may very well look at the ages and snap up the guy who has the potential for three or four extra years in the league.

Mar 9, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies guard C.J. Wilcox (23) drives to the basket against the UCLA Bruins during the second half at Alaska Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

On top of this, it’s worth asking what exactly Wilcox would be coming back for. When Locker decided to return for one last campaign, there was a general feeling of progress. UW was attempting to fully rise out of the 0-12 ashes, and Locker coming back was supposed to get the team back to a bowl game, back to respectability. Turns out, it worked, even if things haven’t progressed much since then (three straight seven win years). For the basketball team, there is no upward momentum. There was just a disappointing 2011 (compared to sky-high expectations) and a pretty horrible 2012 (by Romar standards). Suggs, Gaddy, and N’Diaye will not be returning next year, with Darin Johnson, Nigel Williams-Goss, and Jahmel Taylor the new additions.

It’s possible that NWG, or maybe even Darin Johnson, will step in and make a huge difference in their first year, but Wilcox can’t possibly bank on that in making his decision. It’s possible that young guys like Andrews, Kemp, or Jarreau will take big steps forward during the offseason and form a much-improved 2013 squad. But he can’t bank on that. It’s even still possible that Aaron Gordon commits to the Huskies, completely transforming the expectations and the perceived talent-level for next year. Hell, it’s possible (if implausible) that all three happen, and this team dominates the Pac-12 next year. But, of course, Wilcox can’t bank on that.

More likely, Gordon chooses somewhere else (don’t panic, I don’t have new info, but he’s considering 2 or 3 other schools, so by that logic UW has no better than a 1/3 chance at him), and the addition of NWG and Darin Johnson (D. Johnson could redshirt for all we know) along with the growth of existing players just about cancels out the loss of the three aforementioned seniors, resulting in a competitive, but underwhelming squad. If Wilcox decides to stay, that core will be improved, but he alone can’t take an average team and make them great. And so, unless Gordon commits to Romar’s team before the decision comes, it’s tough to say with much conviction that Wilcox should return for his team, or for his school.

That does not mean, however, that he shouldn’t return in order to improve his personal draft stock. At this point, you might be shaking your head and scrolling up to where I said that, due to his age, staying could hurt his stock. It could, from an age perspective. But, in more ways than one, Wilcox regressed statistically this year, as compared to last. While he started off the year shooting consistently better than his career average (both from the field and from the three-point line) while taking more shots and scoring more points per game, Wilcox fell into a long slump, which sort of devoured the second half of his season. Towards the end of the conference slate, he could no longer be depended on to hit an efficient percentage of his shots, and for a player that mostly stands out (from an NBA scouting perspective) for his jump shooting ability, that is not good. He recovered a bit with some solid games the last few weeks, but overall he has shot 42% from the field and 36% from three-point land on the year, compared to 43% from the field and 40% from three-point range last year.

While it could be argued that the differences are fairly slight, Wilcox was expected to grow this year. To get better now that Ross and Wroten were gone, now that Wilcox would be the focal point of the offense. Right around 6 games into the conference season, when Wilcox was averaging just under 20 ppg on roughly 45% shooting from the field and 42% from three, mock drafts began to include him in the mid to late first round, while others still had him going early in the second. After the harsh slump sliced away at those numbers, lasting long enough that it could no longer be dismissed as a simple cold streak, I think Wilcox is likely to be considered a 2nd round prospect. He was just beginning to get solid 1st round consideration at his peak, and now that he has had a season slightly less efficient than last year, it seems logical that his standing would slip.

Now, as I mentioned, C.J. took more shots this year, and played more minutes. Last year, in 28 minutes, Wilcox averaged 14.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per game, along with .6 blocks, .9 steals, and 1.3 turnovers. This year, in 34.8 minutes, those figures have increased to 16.7 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.0 block, 1.1 steals, and 1.9 turnovers. Solid. And the block and steal a game are indicative of his solid athleticism, but playing additional minutes, all the increases are mostly what you would expect given the extra minutes. No spikes. And the increases came at the cost of a slight hit in efficiency.

Feb 16, 2013; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies guard C.J. Wilcox (23) a free-throw during the 1st half against the Oregon State Beavers at Alaska Airlines Arena. Washington defeated Oregon State 72-62. Mandatory Credit: Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

I think that hurts his draft stock, considering the earlier 1st round mock draft projections were based on more optimistic projections for Wilcox’s end of the season numbers. Even if you argue that his slump was caused by the stress fracture in his foot, which is likely, and that even last year’s numbers were hurt by the stress fracture in his hip, you’d be bringing up yet another issue scouts may have with Wilcox. What was a single nagging injury last season has now become a bit of a red flag with the second stress fracture, even if it’s a different area of the body.

If NBA General Managers are worried about Wilcox’s numbers, and worried about the injuries, I think that it would make sense for Wilcox to want to come back for one more year to prove that he can stay healthy and maintain the sort of numbers he has flashed over certain stretches. It would also help if he spent a year showing GMs that he is still growing and improving on defense and in his passing. Now, at 22, if Wilcox isn’t confident he can stay healthy, or isn’t confident in the year to year upside of his game, he may want to leave. That may come off like a loaded statement, but by the tail end of a college career, lots of players have to a certain extent reached their peak. It’s impossible to be certain if that description fits Wilcox.

He’s already a 2nd round player right now, and if he is fine with that, and just wants to move on to the next stage in his career, that’s fine. That could mean that he just doesn’t mind the lack of hype, and the lower starting salary, because he is totally confident that he can outperform that tier and prove his evaluators foolish. I don’t know what he values, or what his priorities are, and he seems to be struggling with it himself, considering he recently stated that he is 50/50 on returning.

I do know what my opinion is, though it’s taken some time for me to decide. I believe he should return to Washington. Not for the team, as they aren’t likely to compete for the top of the conference with or without him, but to boost his own stock. I do believe that he can stay healthy next year, that it’s unlikely the two stress fractures in two different bones automatically mean he will have another issue in ’13-’14, and I believe he can average 18 or so points per game while shooting more efficiently. Even if he fails to, he would likely still be a 2nd rounder, so I think he’s risking relatively little, short of a really serious injury, by returning. Plus, there’s even a chance I’m wrong about the team, or that Aaron Gordon commits, and all of the sudden the mediocrity of the ’12-’13 team would be forgotten, and Wilcox’s return would be something greater.

We’ll probably have to wait until after the NIT to find out his decision, but at least now you have read a really, really long post about it, so you’ll have your mind fully made up by the time C.J. does.

Note: Pointed out in the comments that I forgot to mention the addition of the two transfers, Perris Blackwell and Gilles Dierickx, who will be eligible to play next year. I think Blackwell will earn a starting spot, and score well from the post. I do not think Dierickx will have a large role next season. My mistake not to mention them, but even with the addition of Blackwell, I don’t think the equation changes much as far as Wilcox’s motivation to return for the sake of the team goes.

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