DJ WILKINS: GROWTH FROM INJURY - By Justin Miller
How the Bulldogs rallied around their star guard during the recovery process
Minutes before halftime, the Drake men’s basketball team was holding onto a commanding lead against the Southern Illinois Salukis in their 2022 regular season finale. During a defensive battle in the post, senior guard DJ Wilkins felt a pop.
“It was not painful. When I first felt the pop, I just laid down because I figured it was something bad with my knee,” Wilkins said.
The air inside the Knapp Center was sucked out. Wilkins limped to the bench before being taken back into the locker room to be examined by the team doctor. After having his leg pulled and tested, he was diagnosed with a torn ACL. It was clear: Wilkins had just played his final minutes in 2022. Heading into the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, Coach Darian DeVries and the Drake Bulldogs were going to be without their all-conference defender.
“I was thinking, how could this happen again,” DeVries said.
Injuries were common for Drake, especially when it came towards the end of the season. In 2021, Drake lost their starting guard and forward in Roman Penn and Shaquan “Tank” Hemphill. Two years earlier, star forward Nick McGlynn injured his MCL during Arch Madness as well.
“It hurts seeing your friend go down. Seeing someone you really care about go out in the final game of the season,” Penn said. “It was rough at times, but things happen.”
Wilkins had been looked upon as a leader on the court, averaging over 10 points per game, shooting 39% from behind the arc, and with an unmatched defensive intensity. Wilkins would now have to be the leader from an unfamiliar spot. The bench.
Despite the injury, Wilkins stayed involved and looked for other ways to lead. “Being active with the team in other places and just showing up before and watching film,” Wilkins said. “I can lead in the weight room and try to have enthusiasm in there.”
Drake lost in the MVC Championship to the Loyola Ramblers 64-58. Wilkins’ presence off the court was an obvious factor, but the Bulldogs’ incredible run was in part credit to his vocal leadership.
“I do not think you could have asked anymore for what he brought to the team without being on the court,” MVC Freshman of the Year Tucker DeVries said.
It has been over six months since Wilkins sustained his injury and the recovery back has been a learning process. Joined by Penn, his teammate and roommate, who suffered an
on and off foot injury all last year, the two guards worked throughout the offseason to get back to full strength with the November 9 season opener in mind.
Comradery has been a staple of this team since DeVries was hired in 2018. Teammates would come into Wilkins’ apartment to check up on him and catch a meal from the self-proclaimed best cook on the team. Fans contacted Wilkins throughout his recovery as well, providing motivation to the senior guard.
“They just reassured me how much they really care about me as a player and more as a person,” Wilkins said.
From an outsider's perspective, one would not be able to distinguish Wilkins' off days from his good days. It is a compliment to his attitude and his willingness to take the situation as a learning opportunity.
“When I was down, I wasn't someone who took my injury and pushed it on everybody else throughout the house,” Wilkins said. “Anybody that came to visit, teammates and everything, I always came in still happy. I was not making my injuries the forefront of my personality throughout this process.”
No timeline has been set for Wilkins’ return with the opening tip-off against IUPUI on Nov. 9.