Kansas junior men’s basketball forward Jalen Wilson wasn’t thinking about himself — pondering what might have been — while watching on TV on Thursday in his McCarthy Hall apartment as a pair of his former Jayhawk teammates were selected in the first round of the 2022 NBA Draft.
Wilson — he went through the pre-draft workout process for a couple months before deciding just a few hours before the June 1 deadline to exit the draft (to retain his collegiate eligibility) — instead was focused on Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun, who were selected at Nos. 14 and 21 respectively.
“I was so excited. They got my reaction on Twitter,” Wilson, 6-8, 225, from Denton, Texas, said Tuesday afternoon after serving as a camp counselor at Washburn coach Brett Ballard’s camp for youths at Washburn’s Lee Arena.
Indeed, Wilson let out loud, joyous roars, which were captured on Kansas men’s basketball’s official Twitter account. He bellowed, “Yes sir, ‘O!” when Agbaji was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers and then screeched, “Aah, What they talk about 2?” when Braun, who wore jersey No. 2 at KU, was selected by the Denver Nuggets.
“Seeing the process, seeing all the years we put in … to see them get their name called after all the work, that was great,” Wilson added Tuesday in Topeka.
When asked by a Washburn camper how he felt about putting his pro aspirations on hold one more season, Wilson said, “Like I told these kids earlier, everyone has a different path. Everyone’s race is different. It’s a marathon.
“You never should look at a friend and say, ‘Ah, that should be me.’ Everyone’s life is different, and I accept mine for what it is and know I’m supposed to be here and supposed to be a leader. I just embrace that role and am happy about it,” Wilson added.
Wilson said he was not surprised Agbaji and Braun went in the first round with plenty of room to spare.
“I don’t think there were even 10 guys that had better seasons than them,” Wilson said. Agbaji, a first-team All-America guard, Big 12 player of the year and most outstanding player of the Final Four, averaged 18.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a game, while Braun, a second-team all league pick and member of the NCAA Midwest Regional all-tournament team, averaged 14.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
“Those guys from day one were leaders. They excelled the whole year. I think they got everything they deserved,” Wilson said.
Wilson — who like most standout college players follows the NBA closely — likes the fit for the two Jayhawks with their new teams.
“I think they are in great spots. ‘Och’ is a guy that can come in and really contribute, being able to score at so many different levels and defend,” Wilson said. “Being with a team like Cleveland, who needs him to come in there and be that leader he was for us, I think that’s an important role,” Wilson added.
Of Braun, who turned pro after three seasons in college, Wilson said, “C.B. is great off the ball (with) one of the best passers in the NBA (Nikola Jokic, Nuggets). He’s going to excel, find different spots from the three-point line. Everybody knows he’s a great slasher. I think they are both in amazing spots.”
KU coach Bill Self has said he thinks Wilson can contend for first-team All-America honors in his redshirt junior season, then reap the rewards himself on NBA Draft day 2023.
Asked if he agrees, Wilson said, “Of course. I have confidence in myself, confidence in what we have here to know we are going to have a successful season. That will lead to things like that (personal honors) for sure.”
Wilson said he will expand on any leadership duties he had as a third-year sophomore.
“You’ve got to live in the gym,” Wilson said of leading by example by working overtime on his game. “Ochai was such a great leader. He showed me exactly what it takes to be in that position, to be able to carry on that (role).
“I also learned from C.B. He was someone who came in and pretty much shocked the whole world the last three years what he has been able to do. To be able to learn from those two guys who got drafted in the NBA … I saw exactly what it takes to get there. Going through that process, also teaching these younger guys, they are going to be the next class, the next Jalen, C.B., Ochai, the next wave.
“To be able to help them as I move on, teaching young guys like Zuby (Ejiofor) coming in. You may not know him now, but through the process and years he’s going to be another great player. Just having a hand in that feels really good,” Wilson added.
Ejiofor, a 6-8 freshman forward from Garland, Texas, who also worked Washburn’s camp on Tuesday, responded “J-Will,’ when asked which KU upperclassmen have been leading summer drills.
“He tested at the (NBA) Combine and decided to come back to school. Now he’s a vocal leader, somebody we can all look up to and get his points on how to win a championship,” Ejiofor said.
Of teaching KU scholarship freshmen Ejiofor, Ernest Udeh, Gradey Dick and MJ Rice about winning at the college level, Wilson said: “At this level, our expectations are super high. Coming in from high school you may not know exactly what it takes to win a championship, a national championship. To have that under my belt, all I can do is just prepare them for everything that’s going to come, try to help them be able to adjust from high school to college — little things here and there. As we move on more and more will come.”