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College basketball: Washington’s C.J. Wilcox ready for lead role

Ex-Pleasant Grove star eager to carry bigger load at Washington.

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C.J. Wilcox has done it quietly and without much fanfare.

He’s taken criticism for turning his back on Utah, when it seemed as if he were a lock to be a Ute coming out of Pleasant Grove High four years ago. He’s bided his time and waited his turn in Washington’s backcourt, annually stacked with NBA draft prospects. And Lorenzo Romar, his head coach, has been present through it all, pushing Wilcox to become more assertive, encouraging him to step out of his comfort zone whenever possible.

At a glance

C.J. Wilcox file

» Played basketball at Pleasant Grove High

» Is currently projected as a second-round NBA pick by multiple websites

» Will start at shooting guard for Washington

» Is a former Tribune first-team All-State selection

» Was injured this past season with a stress fracture in his leg

» Is regarded as one of the best pure shooters in college basketball

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Now, Wilcox seems to be in full bloom.

He heads into his junior season with the Huskies as their top perimeter option. At 6-foot-5, Wilcox is regarded as one of the best shooters in the country. Next summer, he may be the next player from the state of Utah to be drafted into the NBA, much like Damian Lillard and Justin Hamilton this year, and Jimmer Fredette from a season ago.

"If he were to have a good season, and some things were to fall into place, people think he has the potential to be a first-round pick," Romar said. "If that were to happen, I’m sure he would take a good, hard look at it."

Already, nbadraft.net and draftexpress.com have Wilcox on their mock draft boards. Wilcox enhanced his reputation this summer by playing well at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy, an invitation-only camp.

Each day, Wilcox enters a gym and puts up 500 jump shots, minimum. His athleticism, speed and defense have improved as well.

"I try to get better whenever I touch a ball," Wilcox said. "I thought the Kevin Durant camp was very good. It gave me a chance to test myself against some of the best players in the country. It’s given me a lot of confidence that I can play with and compete against anyone."

Opportunity is what’s most important for Wilcox this coming season. Washington has always been stacked in the backcourt. This year, however, there’s no Terrence Ross, no Tony Wroten, no Isaiah Thomas to share shots with.

Wilcox is the man on the perimeter, which will be new to him. He will receive the bulk of the shots, and the chances to improve on his sophomore season, when he averaged 14.2 points per game, will be plenty.

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"I think it’s hard for guys to go away and to want to get away from home," said Johnnie Bryant, who trains Wilcox in the offseason. "But C.J. was able to go to a program that’s given him the freedom to do his thing. He has a free spirit. He’s one of the best shooters around, and he’s making a name for himself."

Wilcox has two seasons of eligibility remaining. He will also be 22 years old next summer. The NBA is short on its tolerance for older players, and Wilcox is swiftly approaching that threshold, after redshirting his first season.

As a result, he and his father, Craig, are approaching this season as potentially his last in a college uniform. Sure, Wilcox could struggle in his new role, or experience injury like he did late last season.

But, if Wilcox flourishes, and Washington plays well as a team, there is a very real chance that he will declare early for the draft.

Romar knows this possibility well. He’s seen players leave his program early in the past three seasons. He’s also ready for it to go either way with his star shooting guard, who already has an NBA skill in his jump shot.

"We haven’t been surprised by anyone leaving our program yet," Romar said. "I think C.J. is poised to have a tremendous season. He’s come in from day one and been one of the top shooters on our team."

Wilcox knows that he has to make improvements to his overall game. He’s been playing better defense, and he’s been more aggressive off the dribble. If anything, though, this year is a test to see if he can truly handle the spotlight that a top option typically attracts.

He has to be a leader. He has to make shots under pressure. He has to make his teammates better, and he has to take a Washington team that woefully underachieved last season to expected heights.

"This is a big year for sure, but I’m ready for it to start," Wilcox said. "I think we have the chance to have a really good team. I just want to win. That’s my first goal. Everything else is secondary."

tjones@sltrib.comon twitter: @tonyaggieville

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