Omar Lowery had been to the area plenty of times before.
More than two decades ago, he enrolled at South Plains College to begin playing college basketball, and he later worked as an assistant coach at Texas State and Sam Houston State. The man knows Texas basketball, which is exactly why he found himself in the Lake Travis High School gymnasium in his first season as an assistant coach on LaVall Jordan’s Butler staff.
This time, around three years ago, he strolled into the building to get an up-close look at D.J. Thorpe, a 6-foot-9 big man who was the son of NBA All-Star Otis Thorpe. The Bulldogs wanted to get an in-person evaluation of the three-star recruit who ended up picking California.
Lowery didn’t last long, however, before letting his eyes start shifting to somebody else on the court.
He’d heard of this guy before. Somebody named Garrett Wilson. The 6-foot guard’s AAU coach had alerted Lowery to his existence, calling him a “big-time athlete.” This was the first time the Butler assistant had ever seen Wilson –unbeknownst to Lowery, a five-star football recruit who’s now a second-year wide receiver at Ohio State – play in person, and boy, that description was spot-on.
“I saw him for the first time and I'm like, ‘Whoa. He could be really good,’” Lowery said, still marveling years later at what he watched that day.
As the action on the court continued, Lowery couldn’t help but allow his mind to wander.
Did I just stumble upon a diamond in the rough?
The change-of-direction ability was immaculate. The athleticism, unmistakable. Lowery, within one viewing window, was convinced Wilson had the makings of something special on the hardwood. To the first-year Butler assistant coach, he was both a natural basketball player and a “freak” of an athlete.
Wilson’s athleticism at his 6-foot height led Lowery to an in-the-moment comparison to one of the best players he has ever coached. Years later, he doesn’t back down from it.
“Kamar Baldwin is overseas playing in Turkey. He could potentially get drafted in this year's draft. Kamar is 6-foot, long arms. I think he was in the same wheelhouse as a Kamar. I think he could have been that level,” Lowery said. “Kamar was a first-team All-Big East player his junior or senior year. In my eyes, that's what I saw in him. You always do projections, right? He was good. He was really good.”
The wheels were already turning in Lowery’s brain. He and Lake Travis basketball coach Clint Baty started talking. Lowery wanted to offer Wilson a scholarship to play basketball for Butler, one of the nation’s premier mid-major programs.
But Baty first had to tell him something. Something that put a damper on the day.
“Coach O, he plays football,” Lowery remembers Baty telling him.
“I'm like, oh boy,” Lowery said. “I'm like, ‘How good is he at football?’ Because I'm seeing him cut, move, the transition on the break.”
@lthsbasketball has had some great players over the years. Join us this week as we salute the @lthscavsfootball WR @garrettwilson_v— Lake Travis MBB Recruiting (@RecruitLTHoops) October 22, 2020
Before he was lighting it up for the @ohiostatefb buckeyes he was throwing it down for the Cavs. Good luck this season G! pic.twitter.com/cDp62UfWcE
Unlike many his age, Wilson didn’t remind Lowery of a football player who happened to play basketball. No, he was a basketball player who also happened to be really, really good at football.
“All of a sudden he just dunks on like two people,” Lowery said.
Lowery has spent two decades in the college coaching business. He, with no exaggeration, has scouted thousands of high school basketball players. Yet three years later, he remembers the exact moment when Wilson launched himself into the air and threw down the hammer on two helpless teammates.
By then, Lowery had learned of Wilson’s status as a football prospect. Growing up in a football family as a cousin to 16-year NFL veteran Fred McAfee and former NFL running back Marcus Dupree, he had no disillusions about what that meant. He knew it was a big deal.
Still, Lowery decided he’d at least have to give it a show and go after Wilson. After what he had just seen at Lake Travis, he had to try.
Wilson shot himself off of the turf, he twisted his hips back toward Justin Fields and raised his arms. By the time he had his hands secured the football, his hips were about even with the top of Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick’s helmet, and he turned his attention back to the ground where he fell as gracefully as one could while catching a ball on top of another human being’s head.
He rolled over, stood up and, almost as if he planned the entire thing, pointed his right hand toward the end zone.
Those in Columbus already knew a lot about Wilson, a freshman at the time. To the rest of the world, the 22-yard reception on the first drive of the Fiesta Bowl served as an introduction to the prodigious wide receiver who one year later is a key piece of a dynamic Ohio State offense with 24 receptions for 344 yards and two touchdowns through three games.
Baty was among those who required no introduction in the College Football Playoff semifinal. He feels exactly zero shock about Wilson’s ascent this fall. None whatsoever.
The Lake Travis hoops coach calls Wilson a “once-in-a-lifetime athlete to come through our school.” Since he has a son who’s Wilson’s age, Baty has known about him since sixth grade. One day while watching his son play a football game, he remembers starting to chat with a fellow father of a player who’d just moved to the school district. The parent, Kenneth Wilson, told Baty that he had a son who loves basketball and just won a 12-U national championship.
Naturally, his ears perked up.
“I'm like, and which one is he out here?” Baty said. “It didn't take me long to figure out which one Garrett was out there.”
Even back then as a sixth-grader, he was unequivocally the best athlete on the field.
“He just had a different gear. Let's put it that way,” Baty said. “He had a different gear where he could get by some people. He also had really good feel for just angles and cutting. Not only that, the guy was a ballhawk. He won a lot of jump balls in sixth grade, seventh grade, all the way up. You saw his catch versus Clemson last year. The guy can dunk a basketball. He can literally go up above the crossbar on a field goal post and catch a ball thrown to him. He has got (an) incredibly gifted vertical jump.”
Baty, with a kid in Wilson’s grade, had a front-row seat to his development.
But would Wilson end up with a brighter in football or basketball? Baty couldn’t tell. Sure, he could see the talent on the gridiron, but he also knew of Wilson’s love for hooping. That was unmistakable.
One time at a middle school basketball camp hosted at Lake Travis High School, an instructor asked one of the attendees for a goal. Wilson raised his hand and the instructor called on him: “I want to help Lake Travis win a state basketball championship.”
“That kind of gave me goosebumps,” Baty said. “Because how many seventh- or eighth-graders are thinking about that at that time? So I thought if he's saying that, then he's going to play basketball for a long time.”
Shortly thereafter, Baty finally got a chance to coached Wilson.
The difficulty, of course, was that as a star football player, he’d join the basketball team in mid-season. Yet even as a freshman who hadn’t proven himself, Wilson was destined for a big-time role.
“We had a pretty good determination that he was going to be on the varsity, but kind of what set him apart was it didn't matter if we were doing a shooting drill, a free-throw drill, a defensive drill or anything, Garrett did not want to lose,” Baty said. “It didn't matter if it was the worst drill of all drills, he wasn't going to lose.”
The confidence in Wilson’s abilities paid off.
As the fourth-ranked of the four teams in the district, Lake Travis faced top-seeded opposition and battled to a tight game down the stretch. Wilson forced a late turnover and, despite being just a freshman, was called upon to take the last shot. He called game. The ball went through the net as a game-winner and, as Baty said, his teammates and coaches “dog-piled him.”
“It's like Ohio State probably playing Clemson. He's going to show up,” Baty said. “He doesn't need much motivation for that.”
Three years in a row, Wilson joined Baty’s team after his high school football season ended, and three years in a row, Baty watched Wilson walk into his first practice with minimal on-court rust.
Baty remembers Wilson scoring upwards of 35 or 40 points in games with countless dunks. As a junior, he earned first-team All-Central Texas honors while averaging 21 points per game. He played every basketball game he could before missing his senior season in order to enroll early at Ohio State.
Still to this day, Baty wishes he got one final season to work with Wilson as part of what he described as a “really good class” and make a run at the state championship. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Baty’s viewings of Wilson now come through the television where he sees so much of what once made him a special basketball player. The cutting ability. The leaping. The hang time. The speed. The anticipation. The knack for coming up with the ball. All of it.
“I think a lot of the receiver skills come from playing basketball for so long,” Wilson said. “I think just handling the ball, going up and getting rebounds, things like that, all translate over to football well. That's something that I kind of forget about. I always give credit to basketball for a lot of my receiver ability.”
Lowery’s pitch to Wilson about why he should play for the Bulldogs was fairly simple. He wanted the multi-sport Lake Travis athlete to become Butler’s version of Trey Burke.
Why Burke, a Columbus native and seven-year NBA veteran? It goes back to LaVall Jordan, the Bulldogs head coach. Jordan once helped John Beilein develop Burke while working for Michigan as an assistant coach. He happened to stand about Wilson’s height and he had a knack for working with backcourt talent, including Tim Hardaway Jr. and Zak Irvin back in his days with the Wolverines.
The talent was evident to Lowery, and Wilson’s personality and character made him somebody he could see playing for their college basketball program.
“He was always a great, great kid at Butler,” Lowery said. “In our world here, a Butler type of kid.”
Lowery headed out of Lake Travis that day understanding the uphill battle ahead of him. But he still wanted to give it a go.
Given the Butler football program’s placement in the FCS ranks, Lowery didn’t bother trying to sell Wilson on a dual-sport collegiate career. He did, however, mention the possibility of playing basketball for Butler, then graduating early and playing football elsewhere.
The pursuit didn’t last long, though. Especially once he talked to a few of his buddies – including Jamar Cain, Oklahoma’s outside linebackers/defensive ends coach, and somebody on Alabama’s staff – to get their thoughts on Wilson.
“They're like, yo, he's like one of the top players in the country,” Lowery said with a laugh.
Lowery and Wilson talked a few times on the phone. To this day, Lowery still has Wilson’s number saved on his phone with the designation of “Player Hs 2019” before his name to reference his high school class.
Soon, Wilson admitted the inevitable to Lowery: “I'm probably sticking with football.”
Lowery’s response: “Wise decision.”
The decision for Wilson to turn down Division-I opportunities, though, probably wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
“Basketball, to this day, is my favorite sport,” Wilson said. “The size just didn't bless me. If it was up to me, I probably would be playing basketball. But being 6-foot, I decided to make the decision to play football and be a receiver.”
Even with the height disadvantaging Wilson, he’d have had a wide swath of colleges interested in pursuing him if he had decided to go down the basketball route. Lowery and Butler weren’t alone.
Rick Barnes, Tennessee’s head coach, had known about Wilson’s family even longer. During a 1978-80 stint at Davidson, he helped recruit and land Kenneth Wilson – Garrett’s father – while working as an assistant coach. Kenneth flourished with the Wildcats, eventually earning a spot in their Hall of Fame by scoring 1,573 points and scoring in double figures in 52 of his 56 last collegiate games.
With deep ties in Texas and knowledge of the Wilsons, Barnes was one of the basketball coaches who offered Garrett Wilson a scholarship.
“One of his assistants had a kid that was on Garrett's select team, so he was always on Rick Barnes’ radar,” Baty said. “Rick was another one of those that wanted him to come play.”
Wilson, at some point, turned him down the same way he told Lowery he’d focus on the other sport at which he starred, eventually committing to play for the Buckeyes.
Ryan Day won out. Football won out. The potential to earn generational wealth won out.
Yet even as the years pass, Wilson hasn’t forgotten about his once-promising hooping career, which began in a church league at 5 years old and helped give him a skillset that turned him into an All-American candidate as a sophomore and will eventually take him to the NFL.
“I think it has a lot to do with all the success and all these receiver traits and stuff like that,” Wilson said. “I think I owe everything to basketball.”