Virginia Coach Tony Bennett gave Isaiah Wilkins the same candid spiel he would to any recruit. Playing for Bennett wouldn’t mean an abundance of minutes in his freshman season, as veteran players filled the roster.
“It is kind of scary to think about that,” Wilkins remembered thinking.
Wilkins committed to Virginia five minutes after that conversation, choosing to learn from the experience around him. In his freshman season, he’s experienced the exhilaration of occasionally playing for the No. 2 team in the country as well as the frustration of not playing for several games.
Bennett considers any contribution from a freshman “icing on the cake,” and Wilkins’s emergence in conference play has provided even more depth to the Cavaliers (17-0, 5-0 ACC), who have 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game entering Thursday night’s home game against Georgia Tech (9-8, 0-5).
“We see a big upside,” Bennett said. “It’s what you do in those next years, especially when you become an upperclassman. He understood that.”
The 6-foot-7 forward scored eight points in 19 minutes in the Cavaliers’ season opener against James Madison, and averaged 15 minutes over the first three games. But he didn’t play against La Salle or Virginia Commonwealth. Then came an even tougher stretch, when he sat for three straight games against Davidson, Miami and North Carolina State.
Wilkins, the stepson of NBA legend Dominique Wilkins, turned to his teammates for advice on how to understand his role rather than his Hall of Fame father, who played immediately during his college days at Georgia. Junior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who went to the same Atlanta area high school as Isaiah Wilkins, told him to be patient.
“There were times when the only thing going through my head was, ‘Oh, I’m not playing,’ instead of thinking about it in a different way,” Wilkins said. “There were times I just forgot that I was a freshman.”
Bennett was impressed with Wilkins’s maturity. He approached Wilkins when he wasn’t playing and reminded him of their conversation about playing time during the recruiting process. Wilkins responded by asking if he could get experience in a different way. “Can I get extra lifts in?” he asked. “Can I get more reps in with the scout team?”
“It’s not easy,” Bennett said. “These guys are all competitive, but I think he has handled that situation as well as he can.”
Bennett didn’t tell Wilkins he might see playing time at then-No. 13 Notre Dame, the game that followed the three-game drought. Sensing he needed someone quick to guard Fighting Irish senior Pat Connaughton, Bennett put in Wilkins with the Cavaliers trailing in the second half. Connaughton sank a three-pointer within 30 seconds, and Wilkins thought to himself, “Oh, no.”
But Bennett trusted him to stay in for the majority of the second half — 14 minutes, his most playing time since the season opener. When he checked his celllphone after the 62-56 win over the Irish, he had a bevy of proud text messages waiting from his mother. Two games later, at Boston College, Bennett put in Wilkins with the Cavaliers trailing by five early in the second half. His layup gave Virginia the lead for good on the way to a 66-51 victory. He finished that game with four rebounds and six points on 3-for-5 shooting.
“He’s got some game in him,” Bennett said with a grin after the game.
The word Bennett uses most when describing Wilkins is “energy.” Bennett said he’s noticed Wilkins has become more comfortable offensively the more he’s played, though “freshman mistakes” still happen. But Wilkins’s motor has always been consistent, which is why Bennett has recently turned to him when the Cavaliers have appeared flat defensively.
In 12 games, Wilkins is averaging 2.1 points and 3.3 rebounds in 10.2 minutes.
Wilkins is one of the livelier players for the Cavaliers even when he’s not playing. During one home game, center Mike Tobey dunked, prompting Wilkins to push off fellow freshman B.J. Stith’s shoulders on the bench while executing an excited leap. Wilkins enjoys watching film of the games he didn’t make an appearance in because he catches glimpses of himself having fun on the bench.
“It’s cool,” Wilkins said. “It’s a reminder that we are freshmen and we can still joke around and have a good time.”