We’ve heard a million times what a difference a year makes, and for Lester Wilson it’s been a dramatic truth.
Wilson sat out last season as a red-shirt after the East Tennessee State basketball team’s coaching staff decided his game wasn’t developed enough to help the squad. Now he’s the Bucs’ best player, and there really isn’t any competition for that distinction.
Wilson has turned into one of the few bright spots for ETSU this season. His average of 18.7 points a game is second in the Atlantic Sun Conference and leads all freshmen in Division I.
“We knew when we recruited Lester that he was a good player,” ETSU coach Murry Bartow said. “But if you had told me the first seven games he’d be in double figures every game, averaging what he’s averaging, I wouldn’t have expected it so quickly.”
Sitting out was a lesson-learning transition for the high-scoring small forward from Knoxville. He had averaged 27 points and 13 rebounds a game at Carter High School and expected to come in and put up some numbers for the Bucs.
“Thinking back now, it wasn’t that tough,” Wilson says.
He’s not completely convincing. That’s spoken with the wisdom of a year’s experience. At the time, it was anything but easy for Wilson to watch as his teammates put together an uneven season that wound up with a loss to North Florida in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament semifinals.
“You get caught up in a couple things,” Wilson said. “You get caught up in thinking about what everybody at home’s gonna think. You’re supposed to be a hero at home, a good player at home, and you come up here and you’re sitting out. Some people don’t really understand. They want to know why you’re not playing. They start thinking ‘Are you really not that good?’ ”
The folks back home weren’t the only people wondering why the former high school superstar couldn’t even get on the court as a true freshmen.
“There’s pride, too,” he said. “You’re like ‘I’m supposed to come up here and play. Why am I not playing?’ That’s a big thing right there.”
In the end, Wilson came to grips with the decision, even agreeing it was best for his career.
“I thought about it and my engineering degree is gonna take 4 1/2 years anyway,” he said. “So I have an extra year to get all that done. And the exciting part is I still have a lot of time. I have time to grow.”
Bartow says Wilson grew quite a bit during his year away from competition.
“I think it was a very important year for him,” Bartow said. “Whenever you can red-shirt a player, it pays huge dividends. We’ve done it a lot and a lot of guys have really benefited from it. It gives you another year to get acclimated to college life and academics and to lift. You’re at practice every day so you’re learning the offensive system, learning the defensive system, learning new things every day.”
Scoring seems to come natural for Wilson, although he called himself a “defensive liability” early in the season. Still, the 2-5 Bucs would be in even more trouble without him.
“I think he’s got tremendous upside,” Bartow said. “He’s got a long way to go, but he’s a willing student. There are a lot of parts of his game that need fixing and need improvement. The one thing he can do is score, but he’s got to score more efficiently. And I think within our structure, with more drills and more practice, he’ll become a better defender.
“There aren’t a lot of guys that can get you 15 to 20 a game, and certainly he can do it, so we obviously need him to score.”
The Bucs will learn later this week whether senior guard Jarvis Jones will be allowed to play this season. Jones sat out the first semester after being declared academically ineligible. If his grades allow, his first game would be Friday night at Ole Miss.
“We are hopeful and very optimistic that he’ll play on Friday night,” Bartow said.