Things never seem to go according to plan when it comes to Penn State basketball. Although the Lions entered the season with plenty of optimism surrounding their freshmen class, fans were treated to some disappointing news on Saturday. Mike Watkins, 4-star power forward from Philadelphia, has not been cleared to play by the NCAA and will likely redshirt.
So what does this mean for Penn State? In terms of wins and losses for this season, probably not much. The Nittany Lions most likely weren’t going to compete in the Big Ten regardless of how well Watkins played, and the team has a number of decent big men (Brandon Taylor, Donovon Jack, Jordan Dickerson, Julian Moore) who need minutes.
Still, it’s undeniably disheartening when a player with legitimate promise, somebody who might be the best big man the program has seen in years, has his career delayed. At the end of the day, whether or not Penn State’s season was considered a success was never going to be based on its record. It was going to be based on development, on seeing if players like Shep Garner and Payton Banks could improve and if the freshmen class of Watkins, Josh Reaves and Davis Zemgulis could make an impact right away.
Obviously much of that is still possible. Watkins is one player, and his absence this season, no matter for how long, doesn’t mean the other young Nittany Lions can’t make strides moving forward. It also could end up being beneficial for the 6’8" forward. After all, Watkins is still a project. A guy with tons of rebounding and shot-blocking potential, but someone who still needs to develop his game on offense. A redshirt season could help him with that, and he could always show up next season more prepared and ready to contribute.
But that’s the glass half-full approach and it doesn’t change the fact that Watkins not being cleared to play continues a disturbing trend of Penn State not having talented guys it was supposed to have. When I first heard the news, I couldn’t help but feel similar to the way I did when Geno Thorpe transferred. While the situation is very different, the similarity is that once again, a skilled young player who was expected to be a major contributor will (likely) not be suiting up for the Nittany Lions this season.
On the court, it will hurt the Nittany Lions by robbing them of arguably their most talented frontcourt player. Yeah, Dickerson can block shots and Taylor is skilled and Jack and Moore have had their moments, but none of them have the raw ability that Watkins has. It also prevents the team from seeing how well he meshes with the rest of his young teammates right now. If Watkins is forced to redshirt, he’s going to start next season in a similar boat as freshmen Lamar Stevens and Joe Hampton instead of being much further ahead than them. For a coach like Patrick Chambers who is focused on development, it must be very frustrating.
But as frustrating as it probably is for the team and definitely is for the fans, the person who is really being impacted by all this is Watkins. Right now, the most important thing is for him to put himself in a position to play basketball and be a student as soon as possible. It’s not yet known if he’ll be able to practice with the team this season, but he’s still enrolled in school, which is encouraging.
Watkins not being able to play this season doesn’t mean his career is destined to be a failure. He’s still got all the tools and resources to become a successful player. But it is a bump in the road. And at some point, you’ve got to wonder when the bumps are going to become less frequent for Penn State.