During spring training, Ben Johnson’s Gophers basketball team has no other physical presence like freshman Pharrel Payne, whose 6-foot-9, 255-pound frame is a load in painting for anyone in the Big Ten.
Payne, the Gophers’ likely starting center next season, won’t be the heaviest player on the roster when transfer from Washington State and former two-sport athlete Jack Wilson arrives this summer.
The 6-11 Wilson said he showed up to his first basketball practice last year weighing 345 pounds for the Cougars, who used him in 14 games as a backup center. College football’s greatest player of the past two years also played 25 games as a reserve offensive lineman at Washington State.
Wilson said he’s now hovering between 295 and 315 pounds. That vastly outpaces Payne and just about every other Big Ten center last season, not named Zach Edey, Purdue’s 7-4 mountain.
Wilson looks forward to physical battles with Payne in training this summer.
“He’s a beast,” said Wilson, who signed with the Gophers last month. “In high school, I played in [Nike] EYBL and you wouldn’t see a lot of bigger guys like that. They were tall and lanky, but he’s a strong man. I’m delighted to work with him, that’s for sure. He’s already a good player, but he’ll only get better.”
Not that Gophers coach PJ Fleck is curious, but Wilson’s football eligibility is up. He still remembers some of his professional combine type numbers. He’s benched 225 pounds 30 straight, has a 7-1 wingspan and a 30-inch vertical leap.
“I wanted to be a strength trainer, so naturally in my spare time I lifted,” Wilson said. “But then football went to another level. As an offensive lineman, I ended up putting weight on my frame. With that, I got really strong, I got into a type of form very different from the one I was in, but I developed below [the bulk] much more rapid contractions and explosive muscles and abilities. So to come back to basketball, I just had to slowly reduce some unnecessary weight from football.”
Last season, Wilson weighed in at 325 pounds and played sparingly inside for the Cougars, who finished 17-17 after losing in the NIT first round. Their starting center was Mouhamed Gueye, who declared for the NBA Draft this summer.
Wilson wanted a bigger role, but he also entered the transfer portal with the goal of pursuing a one-year master’s degree in exercise science. While developing a relationship with Gophers assistant Marcus Jenkins in the recruiting process, he eventually saw that the U would be a great fit.
“There’s no denying that this is a great opportunity,” Wilson said. “They have a great fan base and community. Obviously, it’s really high level basketball and it fits my style of play as I am today. not work out when I was 235 pounds, but at 300 pounds I can make an impact in the Big Ten against other teams that have more traditional big centers.”
The Montara, Calif., native was a four-star recruit to Junipero Serra when he signed with Oregon State out of high school in 2018. He played seven games for the Beavers before moving to Idaho State during of the 2018-19 season. He then averaged 4.2 points and 3.2 rebounds for the Vandals in 18 games in 2019-20.
Three years ago, Wilson was transferred to Washington State to work for the Cougars as a strength coach trainee, but was convinced by a staff member to join the football team. He played mostly on special teams in 2021 and 2022 before returning to basketball. He still has a year of COVID eligibility left, but only for hoops since he was playing the sport when the virus hit.
“It’s just kind of a wild ride,” Wilson said. “I am for resilience and tenacity. When it was time for me to be done with basketball [previously], I relied on faith in God to guide me in what to do next. It’s been a lot of ups and downs, but coming back to basketball has been a lot of fun.”
An earlier breakdown of the roster this spring revealed that the U’s frontcourt badly needed to add depth down the center behind Payne. Points and rebounds leader Dawson Garcia is more natural to play power forward. The other frontcourt returning players (Kadyn Betts, Joshua Ola-Joseph, Parker Fox and Isaiah Ihnen) are also forwards.
–The Gophers are expected to welcome Howard transfer guard Elijah Hawkins on an official visit Friday through the weekend. Hawkins, who played in the NCAA Tournament this year, led the Bison in points, assists and steals last season.