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WSU big man D.J. Shelton has put weight of Cougars’ season on his shoulders

PULLMAN – A day after Washington State’s 64-62 loss to Washington in the first round of last season’s Pac-12 tournament, D.J. Shelton was in the weight room. It was the first step in a transformative offseason that has seen the forward add more than 25 pounds to his frame.

“I changed my body a lot. I was 230 pounds last year, now I’m like 256,” Shelton said.

Shelton’s physical metamorphosis wasn’t prompted by prodding from coach Ken Bone, nor was it spurred by talent evaluators at the professional level. Rather, it was the result of the mental transformation undergone by Shelton, one that has the fifth-year senior ready to lead a team he can finally call his own.

“I have a lot of moments where I’m like, ‘Dang. I’m here, I’m a starter on the Washington State basketball team,’” Shelton said. “I can be proud of this and I can make the best of this. A lot of people don’t get this opportunity and I’m blessed.”

The athletic ability was never in question for Shelton, whose family tree is littered with relatives far outside the spectrum of most people’s sporting ability. Uncle Lonnie Shelton was a star at Oregon State and played for a decade in the NBA; uncle Damion Shelton and cousin LJ played professional football. Cousins Marlon, Tim and Titus each played Division-I basketball.

But when a player’s career is more notable for the sheer number of teams he played for than for his exploits on the court, it can be difficult for a leadership style to develop at the same rate as his basketball skills.

Shelton played at four different high schools, had a redshirt year at Cal-State Fullerton and a season at Citrus College. The Cougars are the first basketball team that Shelton has been with long enough to develop relationships with, much less take ownership of.

“I think he’s been able to grow as much as any person in our program during my time at WSU,” Bone said. “I think we’re seeing a different D.J. Shelton than when we brought him here a couple years ago, and that’s because of the stability of him being here for two-plus years.”

The results from those physical and mental changes are already apparent. Shelton’s game is showing more refinement in the low post, and his already sweet shot has gotten even sweeter. More importantly, the senior post finally has the credibility with a team to hold teammates accountable.

“He’s always had that mentality, but I feel like this being his senior year, he’s really stepped up and he’s really worked on his game,” guard Royce Woolridge said. “He knows that he’s a senior know and we’re all younger than him. We take after him and he definitely has taken on a leadership role this year.”

The new and improved D.J. Shelton will play a critical role for the Cougars with the departure of Brock Motum – the Pac-12’s leading scorer this past season and WSU’s leading rebounder. While picking up Motum’s scoring slack will be a communal effort for the Cougars this season, Shelton will bear much of the rebounding burden.

There have been other improvements as well, although it may be hard to see the difference.

“I would foresee the astute basketball fan recognizing the difference,” Bone said of Shelton’s development. “It may not be what he does as much as he’s not doing. Maybe he’s not traveling, maybe he’s not charging. He’s just slowing down the game and not making as many mistakes. So in my mind he’s really elevated himself as a basketball player, but a lot of those things a typical fan just doesn’t see.”

With so much on his shoulders, perhaps the biggest challenge for the 6-foot-10 senior will simply be staying on the court.

“I’ve really got to be smart on reaching and getting dumb fouls too early,” Shelton said. “That’s something new for me because of the depth. I’m going to have to adjust to it and play physical and not get fouls – own the paint, but in a smart way.”

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