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2016-17 Penn State Basketball Player Previews: Mike Watkins

The redshirt freshman will have a chance to make a major impact for Penn State this season.

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Mike Watkins has been heralded as the best true power forward that the program has had since Jarrett Stevens wore the blue and white nearly two decades ago. That’s a big set of shoes to fill, figuratively speaking, as Stevens was an undersized power forward at just 6’5. Watkins has the body of a Big Ten power forward at 6’9, weighing just under 250 pounds. This summer Stevens attended Penn State practice sessions and passed on many tips to the young Watkins.

Stevens’ assessment of Watkins is that he will need to continue to develop the finesse side of his game as he hones his talents. Having been used to being physically superior to his competition to this point in his career, Watkins will not be able to simply man-handle his fellow power forwards at the Big Ten level. And it’s not that Watkins doesn’t have the skill level to play with finesse, coach Chambers pointed out that he was one of the best passers on the team. It’s just that he hasn’t seen the level of competition that will be thrown at him in the coming months.

It will be interesting to see how Watkins is used this year. He could start and play heavy minutes or be one of the key players off the bench. It may take a dozen games for him to settle into his role, with the process not being entirely on his shoulders. The team’s lack of big bodies may dictate the strategy to coach Chambers.

Last Season

Watkins joined the program as a highly regarded recruit that was expected to have a significant impact on the court last season. In a surprising turn of events, he was ruled ineligible academically by the NCAA. Fortunately Watkins was able to practice with the team while he sat out last year. Watkins’ presence would certainly have helped the Lions last season, but overall, for he and the program, it is better that he took a season to gain strength and experience. Sometimes the plan doesn’t work out the way that you anticipated, but in the long run, things work out for the better.

Role For This Season

While popular opinion is that Watkins and Julian Moore will be used interchangeably, and seldom be on the court at the same time, that may not be the case in every game. There simply isn’t a fourth option to play power forward or center on the Lion’s roster this year. 6’7 freshman Lamar Stevens was mentioned by coach Pat Chambers as an option at power forward and even center. Stevens is a more natural fit at small forward.

That may be the secret for Penn State’s lack of power forwards and centers. The team has a few true small forwards that, when in the game, can aid the rebounding and defense that the team will need. Stevens, Davis Zemgulis, and Payton Banks are all 6’6 and have good size. If the trio can produce alongside a heavy rotation of talented guards, the team may be forced to play just one true low post player, a small forward, and three guards. The shortage of large bodies this year may become a factor if there are injuries, fouls, or the team matches up with another that has two or three quality low-post players. Outside of that, coach Chambers may play three guards, a small forward, and one big man by choice. So the lack in numbers down low should not be a constant theme of the season, but may come up a half-dozen times as the team plays some of the beefier opponents.

That leads to the likelihood that Watkins will be used mostly as an undersized center early in the season. It would be a surprise to many were he and Moore to gain significant minutes on the court together, since the risk of one getting tired or racking up fouls would leave the team with just one true low-post player.