Perhaps the most poignant evaluation of Joel Wilson this boys' basketball season came from an opposing coach who had to deal with him. Even though Nature Coast edged Wilson’s Hernando High team on Dec. 11, 50-47, Sharks head coach Dave Pisarcik had nothing but praise for the Leopard guard who had just dropped a game-high 26 points.
“He’s the best player in the district,” Pisarcik said. “To be able to grind one out at home, when we were facing some adversity, shots weren’t falling and Joel was creating a lot of tough situations for us defensively. He’s just a tough guard.”
Coming into Friday night’s game on December 18th against Weeki Wachee, the 6-foot-3 senior was averaging 23.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 steals. He’s a big reason why the Leopards started off 4-0, though they endured four straight losses before a 57-25 victory over the Hornets.
“We’ve had some close losses, tough losses that I think we shouldn’t have lost. We’re growing as a team and starting to figure things out,” Wilson said. “We got too comfortable with a 4-0 start. We’ve let a couple slip here. But I think we can bounce back. We’ve got to come to practice ready to work and get after it. I think we can be a good team… I’m just trying to cut down on my turnovers and get more people involved. I try to be aggressive because I know my team needs me.”
Wilson’s showing against the Sharks, as well as his 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals in an “off” night against Central a few nights earlier, were made more impressive by the fact that he had battled the flu throughout that week. “He does it every day and every game,” Hernando head coach Jeff Laing said. “Had a rough game against Central and lost about seven pounds during the week. I think he gutted it out. That was a gutsy performance for him.”
Over the past four seasons, Wilson has turned in a number of fine performances for the Leopards. Across 75 games, he’s averaging 11.3 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals – and his stats have improved with each campaign.
“I feel that once I got into high school, I was still kind of a baby with my emotions and stuff,” Wilson said. “But I just kept working hard. My dad always pushed me when adversity would come. I just trusted that and worked as hard as I could.”
As a junior he emerged as a top player in the county and on his team, averaging 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.3 steals. He was second on the team in scoring to only one person: his brother Mark.
Mark Wilson, who graduated last school year, is one of Joel Wilson’s 12 siblings. Their father is Hernando cross country coach David Wilson, also an assistant coach with the basketball team.
Spending three years in the same backcourt as his brother provided invaluable experience for Joel Wilson, preparing him to finally move to the forefront. “He really put me under his wing and gave me the confidence to have a coming-out season this year,” Joel Wilson said. “He challenged me to work hard so I could fill his shoes when he left. “Me and him are best friends. We do what brothers do. We fight, we jaw at each other all the time. But as we get older we’ve learned to be the best friend we can be and be the best brother we can be. I was sad when he left. He was definitely a great mentor. He taught me a lot of things, how to lead by example. He helped me a lot. It was a lot of fun.”
Admittedly, it has taken some time for Wilson to get used to playing without his brother. “Every other game of my high school career, he was always playing with me and we have a certain chemistry that’s pretty crazy,” Joel Wilson said. “Not having him has been different, but I’ve adjusted to it. I can’t think about that, I have to be aggressive and do whatever I can do to make us successful.”
So far he has done his part toward that end, balancing scoring while also essentially filling the role of point guard. Laing pointed out both Wilson’s work ethic and fearlessness. “He gets to the hole, and that’s tough to defend in this era of Steph Curry and Golden State and everybody shooting threes. He’s driving to the basket. You don’t see that,” Laing said. “He’s got all three phases. He can go to the basket, he can shoot the three and then he can go to the midrange.
“When I took over the program, I made a conscience decision that he as a sophomore was going to run the point guard for us. We didn’t need him to be the playmaker, and we just kind of kept increasing his role every year after that. So now here in his 12th-grade year, things are going to roll through him. It has to, but thankfully we have very good complements with Donta (Manuel) and Dustin Bailey.”
Despite the Leopards’ recent rough patch, Wilson still believes they have an opportunity to compete for a district title. They are currently in a jumble with Central, Citrus and Crystal River for second through fourth place in Class 5A, District 7 behind first-place Nature Coast.
As well as he’s played, this might be his last time playing basketball competitively. While he said he’d enjoy the opportunity to play in college, he’s in the process of applying to attend West Point. His family has deep roots at the prestigious military academy. His father is both a graduate and former teacher at West Point, while his older brother Austin attended the school and another brother Derek goes there now.
“I kind of grew up there. I grew up around that culture and environment,” Joel Wilson said. “I look up to my dad and brothers. They motivate me to be the best I can be. I want to follow in their footsteps. I saw what West Point did for them and what it could do for me.
“If I can get into West Point, I’ll definitely take that. If another school offers me for basketball, I’d be tempted to take that. I love basketball. It’s something I love and it’s my passion really.”
All the more reason why he wants to make his final season in a Leopard uniform a memorable one.
“I’m definitely looking for us to just mature and reach our potential,” Joel Wilson said. “I know we can win these games we’ve lost. We’ve just got to believe in ourselves. I think we can be a dangerous team.”