Improvement Arc: WVU's Brandon Watkins

It's the day before the opening of the 2014 Big 12 tournament, and two figures are working alone at one end of the echoing, almost empty Sprint Center in Kansas City.

On the surface, it looks like the most boring drill imaginable. Over and over, a player grabs the ball from the net, moves into post up position on the block, makes a move, and shoots. Nothing further than 2-3 feet from the basket. Retrieve, post up, shoot. Lather, rinse repeat.

A couple of feet away, a coach watches, cajoles and chides. “Protect the ball!” “Create space!” “See the rim!” In what's supposed to be nothing more than a shootaround for the next day's game, a West Virginia big man is going to school. Now, multiply that practice session by the dozens, and you get the effort that sits behind the improvement of Mountaineer forward Brandon Watkins, who had perhaps the best back-to-back games of his career over the weekend. The 6-9 sophomore put up six points and eight rebounds in just seven minutes against TCU on Saturday, then followed with four points four rebounds, an assist and a steal in the win over Texas Tech on Monday.

Granted, those numbers don't jump out of the box score, and they probably aren't going to dominate any opponent scouting reports. However, for those that aren't totally captivated by numbers, it's apparent that Watkins is on an improvement arc. Question is, will that continue, or plateau?

Coming into the season, Watkins wasn't tabbed to be a breakout performer. Much of the attention was on Jonathan Holton, termed the team's best all-around player by some – and on a squad with Juwan Staten that's saying a lot. Watkins was just another face in the crowd, but maybe he shouldn't have been, considering his play against Texas in the Big 12 tournament. In that blowout loss, Watkins was the only player outside of Staten that didn't appear intimidated. Playing 22 minutes, he made five of 11 shots against the massive Longhorn front line, grabbed seven rebounds and dealt out two assists. That showing provided an inkling of what he was capable of, but it got shoved into the background in the team's desultory loss to Georgetown in the NIT.

Poised for a fresh start this fall, Watkins was laid low by an illness that West Virginia would not name, but one that clearly had more than short term effects on hisstrength and stamina. He missed the first seven games of the 2014-15 season, and during that time lost nearly 30 pounds. All that offseason work in the weight room disappeared, leaving him in much the same boat he resided in as a freshman – fighting an uphill battle against stronger foes.

As the calendar pages flipped in December, though, so too did Watkins' contributions. Some of the endurance, if not the weight, returned, and with it came his confidence. The improvements didn't all come on offense – he's easily West Virginia's best defender at the rim – and he did well in helping cut down on penetration when TCU and Texas Tech got past WVU's initial waves of full court pressure. He challenged more shots in the paint than anyone, but is also learning how to do so and still get back into rebounding position – key skills for the back man in the press to master. And he's retained his silky-soft touch on mid-range shots, especially those favored baseline jumpers.

Does all this make Watkins the best big on the WVU roster? It's tough to sit Devin Williams down, as he is the best pure rebounder and usually reliable for 10 points per game, but if Watkins continues on this path, it will be difficult to deny him more minutes. Playing two bigs at once might be an option in some situations, but that would mean one of the two would have to play away from the lane on the press, and that's a task that none of the trio (Elijah Macon being the third member) is suited to perform.

Still, there are plenty of minutes available. With Williams averaging about 22 per game, West Virginia needs solid backup play. Watkins, if he can continue on this encouraging path, will be in great position to fill that void.


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