Jaylen Wells is WSU's (not so) secret sauce

The Division II transfer is one of the most impressive stories in all of college basketball.

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Good morning! Yesterday, I found myself ready to write again after spending the weekend in Bellingham and Vancouver celebrating my birthday with my family — first, attending a rock ‘n’ roll show at the venerable Wild Buffalo on Friday, then, crossing the border on Saturday in pursuit of the best gluten free1 bakery we could find. (We totally found it. And it was incredible.)

We also had some solid barbecue for dinner and found a killer record store in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood. I came home with a couple of fun albums — one picked by me, the other by my youngest as a birthday gift — and another son found some CDs and tapes because those are about as cool to him as records are to me. Go figure.

But mostly, the trip provided a nice distraction after Thursday’s disappointment that was compounded by Saturday’s unwelcome news that USC beat Arizona. Because I was busy, I had little time to stew.

Now that I’ve returned to real life, I’m thinking about hoops again. And with the Pac-12 tournament tipping off today and about to take over our attention, I wanted to make sure to write about something I’ve been wanting to get off my chest for weeks.

Jaylen Wells is freaking awesome.

Photo by Ashley Davis/CougCenter.com

The Pac-12 revealed its all-conference selections yesterday, and while Kyle Smith (Coach of the Year), Myles Rice (Freshman of the Year, all-conference first team) and Isaac Jones (all-conference first team) all were properly recognized, Wells …

… well, Wells got screwed. He was named just an honorable mention as not quite one of the top 15 players in the conference.

That, my friends, is insane.

By now you know the broad strokes of how Wells ended up at WSU, up-transferring from Sonoma State after being a Division II all-American there. He was the second D-II transfer to WSU in the last few years; Tyrell Roberts was the first, and he had mixed success in his one season in Pullman. So naturally, there were questions about just what we should expect from Wells, even as there were rumblings that the coaching staff really liked him, never mind the fact that he is all of 6-foot-8 and not 5-9.

Wells didn’t light the world on fire out of the gate, mainly because of injury; he sat out the first game of the season and then played just six minutes combined in the next two, including the neutral site loss to Mississippi State.

After recovering, Wells ramped up and settled into a sixth man role off the bench for a dozen games: 22 minutes a night, 9.3 points, showing a deadly stroke from deep by shooting 41% beyond the arc. Like Roberts, Wells was struggling to make his 2s — just 31% — but he was adding 4.8 rebounds, so his contributions were a big net positive for a reserve.

The team, though, hit a wall during that time. Eight wins in the first nine turned into four losses in the next six. This included going 1-3 to start Pac-12 play, and the season was on the brink. Wells wasn’t exactly helping the cause with his up-and-down play against the stiffer competition.

Smith decided he needed to make a change to the lineup and go all-in on size — and that meant replacing Kymany Houinsou2 with Wells a starter and making him the nominal shooting guard. It was risky, and far from a sure bet; Wells would be relied upon even more for scoring, and he’d also have to defend perimeter players.

Boy, did he rise to the occasion.

In starting the final 16 games of the regular season, Wells became one of the most important players on the team … and arguably one of the best players in all of the Pac-12. In 36 minutes a night, he averaged 15.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and just 0.5 turnovers(!), displaying an increasing array of offensive skills that demonstrated just how it was that he averaged better than 22 points a year ago at the lower level.

Evolving from just a spot-up shooter, Wells showed a deft ability to not just get to different spots on the floor, but to make shots from all sorts of different angles. The pinnacle was when he dropped 27 points on Arizona; whatever questions anyone might have still had about Wells’ ability against the highest levels of Division I, they were erased once and for all on that night:

In 20 conference games, Wells finished second in the Pac-12 in offensive rating — an insane 129.8 — driven by some incredible shooting. Even after going 1-of-10 in the season finale against UW, he was 44% from beyond the arc (third in the conference) as a high-volume shooter (101 attempts, more than 5 per game) while also upping his rate from inside the arc (48% on 107 attempts) and becoming nearly automatic from the free throw line (86%, third in the Pac-12). He turned the ball over on less than 6% of the possessions he uses — best in the league by a mile, which is crazy for a guy who actually puts the ball on the floor with some regularity.3

That kind of incredible efficiency is a major, major reason why the Cougs have gone 13-3 in that stretch, both ascending into the AP poll and achieving “lock” status for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.

It might even be fair to say that Wells is the reason WSU has done that.

Obviously, Myles Rice and Isaac Jones have been ultra important, and I don’t want to diminish their leadership. However, the emergence of Wells as a legitimate third scoring threat is what supercharged this team. There’s a reason why NBA teams are always trying to assemble a Big Three — devising a plan to defend three legitimate scorers who beat you in different ways is a really, really tough thing to do.

The coaches who voted on the all-conference teams should know that. Shame on them.

If you’re wondering how unusual it is for a D-II up-transfer to do this sort of thing at the high-major level … so was I! So, I decided to investigate.

Verbal Commits tracks all these transfers, even at the Division II level. By their count, there were more than 900 D-II transfers last season; of those, they reported 70 players transferring to Division I schools. Of those 70, 13 don’t show up at kenpom.com as having played at their new schools this year; another 21 have played less than 40% of the available minutes for their team, meaning their role is minimal.

That leaves us with 36 players who transferred from Division II to Division I and became regular rotational players for their teams — roughly half of what we started with. I took those 36 players and plotted them on the graph below with a few stats that broadly tell the picture of their offensive contributions to their teams.

  • The vertical axis is the player’s offensive rating, which is a rough measure of their points contributed per 100 possessions; above 110 is pretty good, since the average D-I team scores about 105 points per 100 possessions. (Those are the players with colored bubbles below.)

  • The horizontal axis is the percentage of his team’s possessions that he uses while on the floor; that’s a measure of how “important” they are to an offense. Kenpom classifies players at 20-24% as “significant contributors,” 24-28% as “major contributors,” and 29%+ as “go-to-guys.” (For context, Myles Rice and Isaac Jones are in that “major contributors” category.)

  • The size of the circle indicates the percentage of the team’s minutes the player has played. This is not on a per-game basis — this is for the entire season.

Take a gander and see what you notice — and then I’ll give you my thoughts. (Click on the chart to open up an interactive version. You can also examine the spreadsheet with the underlying data here.)

A couple of things stick out to me immediately. Wells, with a 126 offensive rating, is far and away the most efficient player among the D-II up-transfers. Nobody else is above 120, and the gap between him and the next guy is bigger than the gap between anyone else except for the two worst players on the chart.

Additionally, Wells is doing it as the only high major player you see here. There are only two other players who landed at the high major/Power 6 level and have played this year — Chaney Johnson at Auburn and RJ Sunahara at Georgia — and neither of them have played enough to show up on this chart.

Of course, you’ve watched Wells all year, so you know he’s efficient. You also know he’s really important to his team. Who are the other guys in this chart that fit that description? Let’s filter it down to only guys who are above 110 offensive rating and using at least 18% of their team’s possessions. That leaves us with six:

The only one of those guys who is even in Wells’ ballpark is Joel Scott, who transferred to Colorado State from Black Hills State in South Dakota.

  • Scott is closest to Wells in efficiency with roughly the same usage — they take about the same number of shots, but Scott has a few more assists and turnovers, raising his usage — and roughly the same amount of minutes.

  • They are the only two guys here who are integral and hyper efficient and play on good teams — the Rams are ranked nine spots ahead of the Cougs in the kenpom ratings, and, like WSU, they are a lock for the NCAAs.

  • They also have played against similar competition, making this somewhat of an apples to apples comparison. (If we’re splitting hairs, CSU actually has played a marginally more difficult schedule than WSU overall, thanks to a much more challenging non-conference slate.)

  • The other four guys? They all play for smaller schools in weaker conferences with less efficient results.

So … Joel Scott. That’s it. Out of 70 up-transfers from Division II, the list of truly impactful players at the highest level of Division I is two: Wells and Scott.4

Photo by Ashley Davis/CougCenter.com

What’s most remarkable to me is just how Wells has ascended to this level of performance.

Wells graduated from Folsom High School in California in 2021, which means he came up right in the middle of Covid. He’s listed at 6-6 on his Hudl highlight page, which means he likely was shorter than that. He also was skinny (listed at 190) and a late bloomer by high school basketball standards — most high level recruits make a name for themselves at 15 or 16 years old, but Wells was still on JV at that point … and not starting.

Here’s a recruiting video from three years ago. Watch it, and you start to get an idea of what happened:

The seeds of who he would become are clearly there. But just as clear is that the physical maturity hadn’t yet arrived, and as impressive as he looks on this video, the competition looks equally unimpressive — all hallmarks of a kid who just wouldn’t be on the radar of most Division I coaches.

So, Wells had no D-I offers. He ended up at Sonoma State, where he had an immediate impact as a freshman before making a massive improvement as a sophomore, leading to his transfer.

“I think it comes from him being a little under recruited and him feeling as if he's a guy that was forgotten about,” said WSU assistant Wayne Hunter, the lead recruiter on Wells. “I think that's what fueled him throughout the end of his high school year and going into Sonoma State. I felt as if he was that guy that was forgotten about, and he wanted to prove everyone wrong.”

When he made the decision to leave after that landmark season, he had to break the news to the coach who took a chance on him.

“He talked to me about how he had maxed out the resources that Sonoma State could offer him — and he was 100% right,” Sonoma State coach Rich Shayewitz told The Spokesman-Review’s Greg Woods. “We are a small liberal arts school that athletics is not that important here. We have one full-time strength coach that he saw three times a week for an hour. We have no nutrition program. We have no sports psychology, all of that stuff. He maxed us out. Everything that we could possibly give him, he squeezed out of this place.”

And he’s doing that at WSU. Perhaps there is no more salient example than Wells taking on a midseason tutorial from Isaiah Watts’ dad, Donald, on how to be more effective on midrange jumpers. He didn’t file the lessons away for later; he implemented the lessons immediately — and to great effect.

How many guys can do that midseason? How many guys would even try that midseason?

“I had a really good hunch he was going to be good just after working him out this summer,” Smith said. “Just his approach to things reminds me of when I coached Matthew Dellavedova. A tiger about taking care of his body, about getting his shots up, he's very regimented. He's got an engineer's mind. Those guys don't let you down.”

Huge credit to Smith for seeing it — and for putting Wells in a position to succeed. Also deserving of recognition is Hunter, who pitched the idea of Wells to Smith.

“I had a lot of schools reach out to me all over the place,” Wells said. "Washington State was the one that stuck out to me. Coach Wayne, when he reached out to me — he's from Sacramento too, so we kind of connected there. I felt like they believed in me, they were one of the first teams to reach out. They connected with my family. They took further steps than other schools, so I knew it was always the right place.”

It always is, Jaylen. It always is.

GFC.

Footnotes

1  60% of my immediate family has Celiac disease, so finding dedicated gluten free restaurants and bakeries — where they can order literally anything off the menu because everything is safe — is like its own little trip to paradise.

2 Until I wrote this, I had forgotten that Kymany had a stretch after Joseph Yesufu’s injury where he started nine games and was playing nearly 30 minutes a night. That feels like forever ago!

3 The next closest guy is at 10%. Wells’ absurdly low turnover percentage is a major part of what’s driving his incredible efficiency, but it also creates a weird quirk of math — it makes it look like he’s not actually using that many possessions relative to others. For example, Isaac Jones’ usage in league play (23.6%) outpaced Wells’ (18.1%), but they took roughly the same proportion of shots — 21.8% for Jones, 21.4% for Wells. The difference is Jones turns the ball over about 15% of the time he uses a possession, which might sound bad, but that’s actually probably only slightly below average.

4 It might be a little disingenuous of me to not classify Scott as a high-major player. The MWC ranks just a smidge behind the Pac-12 in kenpom’s conference ratings. There also is a case to be made that Scott has been even better than Wells. I, however, will not be the one to make it!

Also, I wish I could tell you how this stacks up historically, but that would have taken a lot more time, and I’m already going on like six hours of researching and writing this thing. 😂 

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