Jan. 21, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — By the time he completed his basketball career at Greater Atlanta Christian, Isaiah Wilkins had established himself as perhaps the premier high school player in Georgia.

His start at GAC was more humble. As a ninth-grader, Wilkins did not make the school’s varsity team, or even the JV. He played freshman ball.

“I wasn’t very skilled,” Wilkins recalled Tuesday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I think after the freshman season, I moved up to the JV. It just took a lot of patience.”

The 6-7 Wilkins brought that patience with him to the University of Virginia, where he’s a freshman forward on the nation’s second-ranked team. He’s come off the bench to make significant contributions in each of the Cavaliers’ past three games — wins over Notre Dame, Clemson and Boston College — but his averages remain modest: 2.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 10.2 minutes.

That doesn’t bother Wilkins. “I just take it as a learning experience and still work on my game every day,” he said.

In an era in which many players grow disgruntled if they’re not given large roles as underclassmen, Wilkins has put the team’s needs above his personal goals from his first day at UVa.

“He’s the first guy in the gym after a game, especially when he [did not play],” associate head coach Ritchie McKay said. “His attitude and the words out of his mouth are always uplifting and positive and without complaint.”

Head coach Tony Bennett said: “That’s the kind of guy you want in your program.”

Wilkins, whose stepfather is NBA Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, said his family’s support has helped.

“I’m really close to my granddad, and he was just telling me, `Wait your turn,’ ” Wilkins said. “So no negative things ever popped in my head. Nobody was like, `Why aren’t you playing?’ That never came across.”

When he committed to Virginia, Wilkins knew he’d be joining a program whose frontcourt in 2014-15 would include upperclassmen Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill, Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte. In what Bennett this week remembered as “a candid conversation,” he promised Wilkins nothing.

“Coach Bennett told me, `If we can use you as a freshman, we’ll use you. If not, you can just learn from the other guys in due time,’ ” Wilkins said.

Bennett said he tells all his incoming players that “it’s almost icing on the cake what you get in that first year. It’s what you do in those next years [that really matters], especially when you become an upperclassman.”

With Nolte suspended for the season-opener against JMU, Wilkins played 19 minutes and scored eight points in the Wahoos’ 79-51 romp. Later, though, Wilkins went through a stretch in which he appeared in only four of nine games.

Instead of sulking, Bennett said, Wilkins “just was like, `Coach, can I get more reps? Can I get extra lifts in? Can I get more reps with the scout team?’ And he’d shoot after games.

“He has totally the right mindset about it. He just said, `I just want to be ready when called upon,’ and I said, `Remember we talked about this?’ He said, `Absolutely. It’s fine.’

“Of course it’s not easy. These guys are all competitive. But I think he’s handled that situation as well as you can.”

After three straight games in which he didn’t play Wilkins, including UVa’s first two against ACC opponents, Bennett turned to him Jan. 10 in South Bend, Ind. The `Hoos were struggling in the second half, Notre Dame fans were roaring, and Bennett thought his team needed a jolt of energy.

Wilkins delivered. He didn’t score in his 14 minutes, but his defense and rebounding helped Virginia rally for a 62-56 victory at the Joyce Center.

“He was huge for us,” UVa junior Justin Anderson said.

Three nights later, in a 65-42 rout of Clemson at JPJ, Wilkins finished with five points and two rebounds in 11 minutes.

“As a first-year, he’s really done a nice job being patient, and then when his number’s been called, just giving us a nice lift,” Bennett said. “He’s very energetic. He brings a lot of activity defensively. He’s smart. Very team-oriented. He’s a very good help-defender, and it’s kind of contagious when he’s out there.”

At Boston College on Saturday afternoon, Wilkins entered the game before Nolte and finished with six points and four rebounds in 13 minutes. After the Cavaliers fell behind by five early in the second half, Wilkins started their comeback by coolly hitting a jump shot that silenced the BC fans.

“He has a level of poise in the game [and] doesn’t get affected sometimes by the moment or the magnitude of the situation he’s in,” Bennett said. “He just goes in and works, and he’s willing.”

In 2011-12, Bennett said similar things about Malcolm Brogdon, then a UVa freshman. Now, as a redshirt junior, Brogdon is one of the nation’s top guards.

Like Wilkins, Brogdon starred at Greater Atlanta Christian for head coach Eddie Martin, whose assistants include his son Brent. It’s no coincidence, McKay said, that Brogdon and Wilkins share so many qualities.

GAC is “a program that we would recruit any day of the week, simply because of its culture,” McKay said. “Coach Martin and his son have established some of the same things that we value as pillars. So when they have a player that is a candidate for this level, we take a long look.”

Brogdon was a senior at GAC when Wilkins was a freshman, so they never played together in high school.

“I had actually never seen Isaiah play until he got here, and Isaiah shocked me,” Brogdon told reporters before the season. “I think it’s a testament to our high school coach, what he taught us and really prepared us for the college game.”

Wilkins said: “We learn early that it’s all about defense. Coach Martin preaches defense, and Coach Bennett does here, too.”

If the Martins had not seen Wilkins play on TV this season, they might not recognize him. When Wilkins arrived at UVa last summer, he weighed around 200 pounds. “I was really skinny,” he said, smiling.

After seven months with strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis, Wilkins is now around 230 pounds. He’s considered a power forward, but he’s still quick enough to cover perimeter players, as he did against Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton and BC’s Patrick Heckmann.

An explosive leaper, Wilkins had an emphatic stickback dunk against BC. His best weapon, however, is probably his midrange jumper, though he’s 1 for 1 from beyond the 3-point arc this season.

“I don’t think I’m that skilled enough offensively to play the 3 right now, but I’m able to guard multiple positions,” Wilkins said. “In the future it could be more 3.”

That future couldn’t be much brighter for Wilkins.

“He is so smart on the court,” Gill said. “He understands the game. His IQ is outrageous.”

McKay said: “Long-term, Isaiah Wilkins is going to be a potential all-league candidate, and possibly more. He’s just got that determination and ability, and he’s got Mike Curtis in his repertoire, so he’s going to get bigger, stronger, faster.”

Wilkins is part of a four-player freshman class that also includes his roommate B.J. Stith, Marial Shayok and Jack Salt, who’s redshirting. Through their contributions big and small, in practice and in games, the newcomers have helped Virginia (17-0 overall, 5-0 ACC) to its best start since 1980-81.

“It’s special,” Wilkins said. “I feel like it’s so much better because the guys are so humble. If you see the team outside of basketball, they don’t act like they’re better than anybody. They’re real humble, real nice guys. The coaches instill it in our pillars. It’s a great program to be a part of.”

THURSDAY NIGHT: UVa hosts Georgia Tech (9-8, 0-5) at John Paul Jones Arena in an 8 o’clock game the ACC Network will televise.

The `Hoos, who under Bennett are 6-1 against the Yellow Jackets, have won 20 straight games at 14,593-seat JPJ.

Fewer than 350 tickets remain for Thursday night’s game. Tickets can be purchased online at VirginiaSports.com. To buy tickets over the phone, call (800) 542-8821 or (434) 924-8821. Tickets also can be purchased at the Virginia Athletics Ticket Office in Bryant Hall at Scott Stadium.

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