USC sophomore Jaha Wilson may be 6 feet 5, but it's understandable if he has a short man's complex.
That's because the last time he started a basketball game guarding an opponent his size was probably three years ago, as a senior at San Francisco Riordan High.
This season, Wilson has been USC's inside workhorse because of the Trojans' lack of a true starting center. In Pacific 10 Conference play, Wilson has faced Stanford's 7-1 Tim Young, UCLA's 7-foot George Zidek and California's 6-11 Michael Stewart.
"It's just something that I have to do because it's best for the team right now," Wilson said. "But it's not easy."
In a USC season that has not been sparkling, Wilson's play has been a consistent lift for the 7-12 Trojans, who have lost five consecutive games.
In Swahili, Jaha means "king of warriors." For USC, it has meant "king of the double-double."
Wilson, averaging 13.7 points and 10 rebounds, has eight double-doubles this season. He can become the first Trojan to average double figures in scoring and rebounding since Cliff Robinson averaged 18.8 points and 11.6 rebounds in 1978-79.
"Jaha has been a very pleasant surprise for us," Coach Charlie Parker said. "It's not as if he didn't have the potential to do this, but coming off last season, he was a question mark."
As a freshman, Wilson played sporadically under George Raveling. Wilson started seven games, but was used mostly as a reserve behind Mark Boyd and Tremayne Anchrum, averaging 3.9 points and three rebounds.
"My first year was a learning experience for me in that I had to learn that this is a system and you have to wait your turn," Wilson said. "I had to learn to be patient and let the game flow to me."
With Boyd having graduated and Anchrum out because of a season-ending knee injury, Wilson has had to step up.
With his shaved head and goggles, he approaches each game with a determined attitude.
"Every time I go on the court, my goal is to establish myself as one of the premier players out there," said Wilson, who played with a college all-star team in Portugal last summer. "I always want to make my presence felt--to be a threat at all times on both ends of the floor."
He did not get off to a fast start this season, averaging nine rebounds but only six points in the first two games, against New Mexico State and Temple.
Since then, Wilson has been impressive.
"He had five straight double-doubles, which may be the norm for a good 6-9 or 6-10 player," Parker said. "But for a guy that is only 6-5, it's exceptional--especially on a team like ours, which desperately needs rebounding."
While adjusting to Parker's up-tempo style, Wilson has shown the ability to shoot from the outside and run the floor on breaks. He had his best game in the first round of the Seton Hall-Meadowlands tournament against Southern Methodist with a career-high 21 points and 16 rebounds.
His success will not surprise those who know his family background. Two uncles, Willie and Francois Wise, played professionally after standout college careers at Drake and Long Beach State, respectively.
Wilson credits his family for his involvement in basketball.
"I was big for my age, but I never was big enough for my family," he said. "My uncles, along with my brother, would never let me play with kids my age. They would always make me play with them, which made things easy for me when I got to high school."
At Riordan High, Wilson was a two-time all-San Francisco selection and averaged 21.5 points and 14.5 rebounds as a senior.
"Jaha has always been a hard worker who loved the game of basketball," said Francois Wise, who played one season with Washington in the NBA and now works for the L.A. Police Department. "When he was in high school, I didn't think that he would wind up here in Los Angeles. I wanted him to go to a school back East, but he wanted to come down here."
Wilson was recruited by several basketball powers, among them Syracuse and Michigan, but decided to attend USC because of his relationship with Raveling.
What was his reaction when Raveling announced his retirement after suffering serious injuries Sept. 25 in a traffic accident?
"I just walked out of the room and went straight home to call my mother," Wilson said. "I was really hurt because I wished that he had stayed."
Instead of sympathizing with Wilson, Gwendolyn Wise told her son to stay at USC and make the best of the situation.
"Since he's been at USC, I've noticed how much he has matured," she said. "I'm really proud of the way he has grown, and I'm not talking just about basketball."
Wilson, majoring in political science, has a 3.0 grade-point average and plans to get a master's degree in business. For now, though, his main concern is to help make USC a winner.
"It's been great playing for Parker because everything is more fast paced," Wilson said. "Record-wise, we're not doing that well, but we're really not that far off. All we need to do is play a little harder and we're going to start winning some games."