How the Grizzlies' Jaylen Wells went from Division II to the NBA

Sonoma State basketball coach Rich Shayewitz remembers the moment he realized he was losing his best player.

The Seawolves – a Division II program in California – played Division I Cal Baptist on December 18, 2022. The Lancers had Taran Armstrong, an Australian point guard who was being talked about as a potential NBA draft pick. And although Cal Baptist ultimately pulled out an 88-67 win, it was clear to Shayewitz that he had the best player on the court.

That was Jaylen Wells, who scored the most points of the game with 30 points.

“Let's just enjoy it while we have it,” Shayewitz told his assistant coaches. “Because after tonight, it's over.”

Shayewitz was right. Wells entered the transfer portal after that season, and a year later he became an NBA prospect after leading Washington State to its first NCAA tournament since 2008. Last week, the Grizzlies selected him with the No. 39 overall pick in the draft.

Wells – the first former Sonoma State player drafted into the NBA – will now play in the NBA, just a few years after not even being able to play Division I basketball. And after everything that has happened since that night in Riverside, Wells still smiles when he thinks back. He remembers the difference of playing against a Division I team, the bigger arena, the louder music and the greater feeling of the occasion.

But he also remembers the 30 points.

“It was probably one of my best games of the season,” he said this week. “It all just felt natural to me.”

Jaylen Wells grows 23 centimeters taller in high school

Wells was a late bloomer, entering high school at 5'10″ and forced to play point guard because he couldn't defend against bigger and more physically powerful players. He didn't make the varsity team until the end of his sophomore year.

A few growth spurts did help, though. But when Wells graduated from Folsom High School, he was 6'1″ tall, and he grew a few more inches in college. Coach Mike Wall got a tall, lean winger, and Wells excelled in his final season.

But this season also took place during the COVID pandemic in the 2020-2021 school year. Sacramento's season didn't start until April, and the extra year of eligibility for college athletes meant fewer scholarships were available for high school seniors. Wall tried to get Wells on the radar of Division I programs.

“It felt kind of helpless,” Wall said. “It felt like a secret you didn't want to keep.”

However, Shayewitz wanted him and Wells was ready to go to Sonoma. He joined a Seawolves team that struggled in his first season, going 3-25. Wells, known as an elite shooter, made just 26.3 percent of his three-point shots.

He also worked on his shooting this offseason. This set him up for a breakout season in the 2022-2023 season, when Sonoma State's improved roster meant it needed less attention on defense for its best player. Wells averaged 22.4 points, but his most noticeable statistical breakthrough was his three-point percentage – 43.8 percent.

What Jaylen Wells showed in Washington State

Shayewitz knew he would almost certainly lose Wells to the transfer portal after the season. They had breakfast a few days after the season and Wells told him he was leaving. Shayewitz and then-Washington State coach Kyle Smith had known each other for years, and Smith was impressed with Wells' shooting ability. He soon convinced him to join the Cougars.

“After about a week of training, I turned to my staff and said, 'I think he could be a pro,'” Smith said.

Smith wasn't sure what he would get with Wells, but the analytics had impressed him, and as the season went on, Wells got more and more playing time.

In his only season in Pullman, Wells averaged 12.6 points per game, but his 41.7 percent 3-point shooting rate put him on the NBA radar.

“He just made so many great throws for us,” said Smith, who left after the season to become Stanford's coach. “It was really important to see his performance under pressure. He responds to pressure.”

Smith told Wells and his team that it was a mistake to move to the NBA. Wells could have had another year of eligibility, and Smith thought he could further increase his draft value if he played another year.

Drafting Wells made Smith feel like Wells made the right decision. He will have every opportunity to make an impact for the Grizzlies, who prioritized shooting in the draft by selecting Wells and UConn's Cam Spencer. If Wells can keep his three-point shooting percentage around 40 percent, he will obviously be valuable to a team that can compete in the Western Conference.

“If you asked me when I was a freshman at Sonoma State, I would have thought I was getting ready for my fourth year at Sonoma State,” Wells said last week at his introductory press conference with the Grizzlies. “To be sitting in this seat now is kind of surreal.”

Reach sportswriter Jonah Dylan at [email protected] or @thejonahdylan.