Thomas asked me to write some pre-season articles talking about individual players in the Big Ten. I didn’t want to start with the best players (Cassius Winston, Jalen Smith) or my favorite players to watch (Trevion Williams, Giorgi Bezhanishvili) or those players who made the news in the offseason (Jordan Bohannon, Cordell Pemsl). I know Winston is going to be good, I know Giorgi is going to be fun to watch, and I don’t know anything more about Bohannon or Pemsl’s situation than what you can find on message boards or Twitter.
Mike Watkins, though... Mike Watkins might be the player that’s most important to his team’s success next season. OK, yes, if Kaleb Wesson gets hurt, that’s going to put a big damper on Ohio State’s season. But assuming he’s healthy, I know Wesson is going to ball out as one of the best bigs in the conference. Mike Watkins has the potential to do the same. But he also has a history of disappearing.
This will be Watkins’ senior season. Of the three seasons he’s played in State College, his (redshirt) freshman year was the most normal. He came in at 6’9”, 246, and rebounded well, blocked a lot of shots, and had some games where he looked like the future and some games where he looked like a freshman. He was a starter at the beginning of the season, fell out of the starting lineup, and made it back in by the end of the season. He looked poised to make a big impression on the league his sophomore season.
And by God, he did. After a relatively quiet performance to start the season, he dropped 19 on Iowa in the first Big Ten game of the season, and went on to score in double-digits in 12 straight games, including back-to-back 20-point performances against Nebraska and Minnesota. But during the middle of February, his fortunes turned. He picked up four fouls in nine minutes in a game against Purdue that his team ended up losing by just three points. The next game against Michigan, he only managed five minutes before leaving the game with a knee injury. He would not return for the remainder of the season, and the Nittany Lions would barely miss the NCAA Tournament.
Between his sophomore and junior seasons, Watkins had a run-in with the law that saw him suspended for the first five games of the season. When he returned, he was not the same player. During the Big Ten season his sophomore year, he played 64% of available minutes. His junior year, that dropped to 51%. He led the Big Ten in defensive rebounding rate and was second in blocked shots, but he still barely saw more playing time than John Harrar.
The issue wasn’t fouls. Watkins only fouled out of one Big Ten game last year (at Purdue, where he was also held scoreless) and picked up four fouls in just two more. No, the issue was... motivation? Drive? Motor? Head? Heart? The exact problem was never clear. You just knew when you played Penn State to expect 20 minutes of Big Mike and his mustache, out there blocking shots with a neutral expression on his face.
There were long stretches last season where Watkins looked joyless on the court, which was sad but not surprising to see since the Nittany Lions center has openly battled depression throughout his playing career. He wrote a long and candid essay where he talked about his upbringing, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol use.
After the offseason legal incidents, there were a lot of people calling for Pat Chambers to kick Watkins off the team. He didn’t. Perhaps the thought was not just that Penn State needed Watkins to block shots, but that Watkins needed Penn State and the basketball team to have a positive sense of community. I think Coach Chambers made the right choice.
But it’s one thing to keep a guy around, and it’s another to get him locked in and playing to his potential. Some guys are easy to coach. Watkins doesn’t sound like he’s one of them. But Watkins has the skills to be one of the two or three best bigs in the conference this year, and if he ends up able to play the 30+ minutes that his talent dictates he ought to, it’ll be one of the best examples of coaching in Pat Chambers’ career.
And it’ll go a long way toward helping Penn State, which has been a program that seems like it’s permanently poised to break through but never quite does, make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
The mustache is pretty baller, too.