After a sitting out the 2015-16 season, Watkins was stepping into a big role as a redshirt freshman after the departure of Donovon Jack, Brandon Taylor, and Jordan Dickerson. He quickly established himself as one of the best shot-blockers in the nation, while flashing his ability to light up the scoreboard and dominate inside.
It didn’t take long to realize that Watkins is a type of player we haven’t had in State College for some time. Despite his inexperience, he showed an ability to alter the game significantly on both ends. More than anyone else, Watkins’ presence was sorely missed when he wasn’t on the court. If he wasn’t the best player on the team last season, Mike Watkins was certainly the most imposing player on the team.
Mike Watkins has incredible potential, and showed that he is just as able on the offensive end to control the game and give opposing teams fits. Sometimes it appeared he even surprised himself with his ability to score inside in a variety of ways. While the forceful dunks make more of his highlights, Watkins also showed some touch around the rim including a natural instinct to get open and locate the rim quickly.
It’s hard to be critical based on what he was able to do as a freshman, but the truth is Penn State needed a little bit more at times from the budding star. I’d like to see Watkins become a little more assertive on offense coming into next year where there’s no reason for him not to averaged double-digit scoring.
Sorry to ruin the first two stats with the third, ugly one. There’s no secret as to Watkins biggest deficiency in his game - fouling. His rebounding prowess and percentage of shots blocked (not to mention influenced) speak to the massive impact Mike has on the team’s defense while he is in the game. On the positive side, Watkins has a lethal blend of athleticism and timing which makes him one of the best rim protectors ever to call the Bryce Jordan Center home.
Despite all the hype leading into the season, Mike Watkins exceeded my expectations. It was clear from the first game of the season that Penn State had a dynamic play-maker the likes of which haven’t been seen in these parts for some time. He was a little raw coming into Penn State, and his redshirt year helped some, but there’s nothing like in-game experience.
In the 2016-17 Watkins went up against some of the best bigs in the country, and didn’t back down. Sure, his influence decreased against some of the better teams on the schedule, but let’s not forget his inexperience. With a year under his belt, and another offseason to work on the fundamentals, I expect to see Watkins take a few steps forward heading into next year. He showed us that he can be one of the top forwards in the conference, and if he continues to develop he’ll start being recognized as such.
Offseason To-Do List
1) Foul Less - It doesn’t take much analysis to realize that foul trouble hampered Watkins’ production this year. Not only did it physically take him off the court at times, fouls also inhibited Mike’s ability to be a physical defender and rim protector. While it’s against his nature, Watkins needs to do a better job of keeping his feet on the floor and not instigating contact. He played 58.4% of minutes last year, a number which I don’t see increasing drastically, but fewer fouls early in the game would allow him to be more aggressive and not shy-away from contact in the closing minutes of games.
2) Confidence on Offense - With his ability to block/influence shots and incredible instinct to grab rebounds, Watkins looked at home on the defensive end of the court. On offense, it was more inconsistent. Flashes of brilliance (including a few times where he put the ball on the court and drove to the basket) were followed by moments of hesitation and stretches where he was less involved. I’d like to see Watkins grow more comfortable with his abilities and let the offense run through him. Whether he’s finishing around the rim, or facilitating his teammates with an above-average ability to pass the ball - there’s no reason Mike shouldn’t be involved in each possession when he’s on the court.
3) Stay Healthy - Next year’s team will have a couple of new additions at forward in Satchel Pierce and Trent Buttrick, and it’s unclear what their immediate impact will be. I think it is clear that Watkins will be the leader of this group of forwards, with rising senior Julian Moore as the first player off the bench. To compete in the Big Ten next year, Penn State will need the presence of Mike #Swatkins on the court as much as possible. Please stay healthy, Mike.