Patience paying off for Wilkins

Quoting Wilkins: "The five we start are as good as any team in the country, and if I can come into the game and sub someone out and we not lose anything, I think that says a whole lot about our team and I think that says a whole lot about me.''

After sitting out the 2001-02 season following his transfer from North Carolina State, Damien Wilkins was anxious to make a big impact this season.

 Now Wilkins realizes he was too anxious.

 Having finally learned to follow the advice of coaches who have been saying let the game come to him, Wilkins is beginning to prosper as one of the most talented and versatile sixth men in college basketball.

 As 15th-ranked Georgia (12-4 overall, 4-1 Southeastern Conference) plays at Vanderbilt (8-8, 1-4) tonight at 8, Wilkins says he finally realizes that he doesn't have to be a star to fill his role on this team.

 "I see that I don't have to force anything on this offense with great players around me,'' Wilkins said.

 "We've won 11 of 12 games and we have a very good team with a chance to do something very special. I think we all believe and have bought into that. The harder we work together and push each other, the better we'll be as individuals.''

 Adding to the difficulty of Wilkins' adjustment as a top substitute has been his role as the top backup to point guard Rashad Wright.

 Wilkins is a natural wing player, but Georgia starters Jarvis Hayes and Ezra Williams each rank among the SEC's scoring leaders, so there has not been much playing time behind those players.

  Instead, the 6-foot-7 Wilkins has had to play all over the floor. In the same game he might run the offense at point guard on one end of the floor and then be asked to defend an inside player on defense.

 "I think he's gaining more confidence about how to play within the framework of our system,'' said Coach Jim Harrick. "I have stifled him by playing him in different positions all the time and moving him around.''

 Added Harrick: "There's a great thought process to playing inside and especially playing the point, and he had never played it before, so it's a learning experience. That's a hard position.''

 There could be more minutes at the shooting guard/small forward wing positions tonight. Hayes is limited by a hip flexor injury. Hayes is expected to play, though Harrick says he would like to hold the junior out for a game.

 Even if Hayes is held out or plays in a reduced role, Wilkins still must play more than one position. He is the only backup to Wright, and Harrick also likes playing Wilkins at point guard while Wright is in the game.

 Wilkins can be especially effective at the top of Georgia's 2-3 defense. With his height and long arms, Wilkins makes for an imposing barrier to passes inside from opposing point guards.

 In Georgia's 85-79 win over Auburn Saturday, Wilkins scored 12 points with three assists. Only 2-for-13 on 3-point attempts entering the game, Wilkins made each of his two 3-pointers against Auburn.

 After scoring only a combined 18 points on 6-for-18 shooting in his previous four games, Wilkins scored a combined 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting in his last two games.

 "Coaches have been telling me to be patient and let it come to me,'' Wilkins said. "That's what I've been doing and the last two games I've been pretty productive and have played well.''

Others have noticed.

 "Damien is coming out relaxed more and he's letting the game come to him,'' Wright said. "You can see him getting into a flow.''

 Added Harrick: "I certainly like what he brought (the last two games) with energy, enthusiasm, offense, defense and rebounding. It allows us to rest our guys a little bit more, too.''

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