When the 2016-2017 season began, there were already high hopes for third year forward Isaiah Wilkins. Then, after just two games, transfer forward Austin Nichols was dismissed from the team for violating team rules. Suddenly, the makeup and balance of the front court changed drastically. Instead of depth at forward, the Hoos were left starting redshirt sophomore Jack Salt alongside Wilkins with sophomore Jarred Reuter and redshirt freshman Mamadi Diakite coming off the bench. With Salt as the only true ‘five’ on the team, Coach Bennett and the Hoos have had to adopt their strategy for the season.
Wilkins, however, is the same guy. At 6-7, 225 he is most physically similar to Mike Scott (6-8, 237) as far as ‘bigs’ go, but without the ability to straight up create offensively. You can see similarities to Justin Anderson’s game, without the freak of nature athleticism. He’s not as bulky or rugged down low like an Akil Mitchell or Darion Atkins, but he brings rim protection to the Pack Line. There hasn’t been a player really like Wilkins, or rather Wilkins doesn’t truly fit the mold of bigs before him.
Now in his third year, Wilkins is starting to hone in on his craft. His numbers are improved from his first two seasons, but not gaudily so. Through 15 games this season, he is averaging 25.9 minutes, five rebounds, and 6.1 points per game. He’s got an improved 1.53 blocks per game, including a career-high five against Wake Forest. He leads the team in steals with 22 (1.46 per game) and is shooting 59.4% from the field and 57.1% from three (4-for-7). He’s a low usage player (14.9% of possessions) according to KenPom, but has a 62.5% eFG rate, good for second on the team. Each season he has improved his points, rebounding, shooting, efficiency, and foul rate, while simultaneously assuming more responsibility.
To be clear, Wilkins is not a big like Anthony Gill (nor Atkins, nor Mitchell, nor Scott). His skill set differs greatly. He’s an efficient scorer, but one who isn’t particularly gifted at creating offense. In Virginia’s four ACC games this season, Wilkins has shot 73% from the field with 24 points and contributed 20 rebounds, three assists, nine blocks, and five steals. He’s a solid, all-around ball player.
When it comes to being an all-around stat stuffer, Wilkins is fully committed to the cause. “It’s my favorite thing to do. Honestly. I’m just trying to do whatever is going to help us win, whether that’s me shooting the ball more, playing defense, trying to guard different guys...this is cool for me.”
A huge part of what Wilkins contributes, however, will never make it into the stat sheet. He fights for every loose ball, battles defensively, and is pivotal to the success of Virginia’s Pack Line. No play more clearly show’s “Zay’s” hustle than the diving tip pass he had to a sprinting Mamadi Diakite against Louisville. Where Louisville’s players had given up on the ball, assuming it to be rolling out of bounds, Wilkins dove for the loose ball, got it to his teammate, and gave the Hoos big boost.
Now that Virginia has shifted to include the four guard lineup more often in games, Wilkins is frequently the lone big man on the court. Devon Hall, who has led the team in rebounding in two of their four ACC games, averages 4.3 rebounds per game - second only to Wilkins - in part due to Isaiah’s role.
“Honestly, I play the same. I try to get my block outs because it really matters on the defensive end. The guards are going to do what they do on the offense, but I try to get my blocks in and somebody comes back and rebounds - usually Devon [Hall].”
Before the Wake Forest game, Coach Bennett shared a quote from Jimmy Johnson with the players: “In order for us to be great, everyone has to just be good.”
Wilkins fits perfectly with that description as a good contributor across many facets of the game and one that is utterly crucial to the success of the Cavaliers this season.
“Zay is a great glue guy,” Bennett said of his forward. “Great help defender, all heart, plays hard. He’s got a lot of experience. I liked seeing him loosen on that short baseline and take some of those shots. We don’t get a lot of scoring out of our interior so if they’re just a couple rhythm shots they have to account for that opens up the lane for some of those drives.”
“That’s perfect,” Wilkins said with a smile as he talked about the addition of the baseline jumper following the Wake Forest win. “I was looking for something like that.”
While Isaiah enjoys putting points on the board, he prefers the smaller plays that affect the game.
“Scoring is cool, but I...have more fun when I’m doing other things...like tipping a ball or something like that. I get more excited.” Wilkins said, adding later, “I like when [Marial Shayok] scores. That’s my favorite. We need him to keep being aggressive.”
Wilkins & Co. will have their hands full as Virginia faces Clemson (11-5, 1-3 ACC) and their superstar forward Jaron Blossomgame.
“He’s a problem because he’s 6-7, 6-8, can put the ball on the floor, he can shoot it...he’s a problem matchup. I’ll have to be ready because I feel like I’ll probably draw that matchup like I have done the past couple years.” Despite the challenge, Wilkins is looking forward to facing his conference foe. “I actually know him personally...we kind of played ball in the same area for a long time, so it’ll be fun to play him again.”
The Hoos may not only be contending with Blossomgame and the players on the court, but a fanbase of rabid Tigers celebrating their recent College Football Playoff victory over Alabama.
“Aw, hell.” Wilkins said when asked about the possibility of Clemson’s National Championship team being involved in fanfare for today’s game. “That’s going to be crazy.”
Hoos and Tigers tip at noon on the ACC Network.