The Path Taken

This column concerns one member of the 2013-14 WVU men's basketball team-- but in reality, it could apply to just about any player on the roster.

Today's subject is Brandon Watkins, and the topics are many: his development, the learning process he's going through, the toughness that gets mentioned but not fully appreciated. They are all evident in his growth from preseason afterthought to vital interior contributor for the Mountaineers. And fortunately enough for West Virginia fans, they are getting to see it played out in real time.

In a perfect world, most every player would be like this. They'd all come to campus, get everything right away and become productive players. In real life though, that's not the way it works. Players adjust at their own pace. Some hit the ground (and the court) running. For some, it takes a little longer for the light to go on. And for some, it never does.

West Virginia fans saw the dark side of the process a year ago. The roster was dotted with me-first and uncaring players – enough to poison the entire team. Putting in extra work wasn't on the schedule. That counterpoint, to a large degree, is what makes watching Watkins so enjoyable. While he hasn't been perfect from the get-go, the journey has been a good one to share, and in a number of ways.

First off is the way his development has played out. While a percentage of fans castigated him as a project or a wasted scholarship, it quickly became clear that he has worked hard over the summer and prior to the season. He had a reputation as a no-offense player, but his soft touch from the short corner and ability to score after gathering offensive rebounds quickly blew that out of the water. He scored ten points in the very first game of his career, getting off to a fine start.

Then, as often happens for players early in their careers, he hit a wall. A good bit of an early December slump was due to if not backsliding, at least a lessening in his work habits, and a failure to understand just how much extra work is required in order to be successful against top flight talent. During this period, he had no points or rebounds against Missouri, and didn't get off the bench at all against Gonzaga.

To his credit, he took the lack of playing time and talks from multiple members of the coaching staff as a lesson learned, and in the five games since the loss to the Zags he has been much more productive. Again, there have been bumps, but he's grabbed 32 boards, blocked ten shots and altered at least that many more over that span.

Brandon Watkins
What's even more impressive is the fact that he has done so while playing with a swollen and bruised jaw, the result of a practice collision with a teammate that ended with him spitting out two teeth in the days before the Marshall game. That wasn't the end of that injury either – he had massive dental work to prepare him for the replacement of the teeth, but the temporary repair covering the anchor posts came free during the Texas road trip, resulting in another trip to the dentist to provide emergency repairs.

When you talk about toughness, it's difficult to imagine anything more painful, and more likely to attract further damage, than this sort of problem. Yet, it almost gets forgotten as Watkins battles inside on every trip for rebounding position. There's just not enough credit doled out to those who can overcome such an injury, and he certainly deserves every bit of it directed his way.

The Texas Tech game was something of a microcosm of Watkins' improvement to date. He certainly didn't do everything right. He lost his man on one high screen and allowed him to score an uncontested lay-up, and he let nearly immobile Drajan Kravic run past him for an offensive rebound and a score. He also missed a very open one-footer on a crucial inbounds play late in the game – a miscue that could have meant the difference in the game. The important thing, though, is that he didn't let those mistakes affect him the next time down the court. He grabbed key rebounds, blocked a shot and altered another in overtime that allowed the Mountaineers to pull ahead, and generally made a habit of following up an error with a balancing good play that showed just how far he has come – and how much better he can be.

As noted at the top, this theme can be applied to just about every Mountaineer on the roster. Juwan Staten's improvement has been nothing short of remarkable. Eron Harris and Terry Henderson can score from anywhere on the floor. Every newcomer has made contributions, and have begun to show different parts of their games that have become much better over the span of a few months. There's plenty of toughness in the face of injuries to go around too, as almost all of the team has been hobbled or sidelined at some point this year. Nothing, though, seems to get this team down. They make mistakes – sometimes on the most fundamental of issues – but they battle back again and again.

Whether this is going to be enough to get West Virginia into a postseason tournament, or achieve the ultimate goal of an NCAA bid, just isn't clear yet. The schedule gets tougher from this point on, and the Mountaineers are still somewhat shorthanded in some areas, and still learning in many others. They have to push through the grind of the long season and get in the gym as often as possible. But they've seen what that blueprint can lead to. Watkins is the example for today, but he's just one of many that can make West Virginia's season a far greater success than most hoped for.

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