The Dan Hurley tenure at UConn has been as good as anyone could have reasonably hoped through ten games. The team is playing close games (and sometimes winning!) against high-profile opponents, the entire culture has changed from the past two losing seasons, and players who had previously struggled on the court are now succeeding.
That doesn’t mean he’s been perfect so far, of course. While it’s hard to pick out any areas in which Hurley’s coaching has been deficient, there is one decision that has been, at the very least, interesting. That would be Hurley’s decision to keep Isaiah Whaley on the bench, hardly cracking the rotation in the last few games.
Before making the case for Whaley, I do want to clarify that he was injured earlier in the season and his lack of playing time may be a result of health. It also might be the case that Hurley is planning something different for Whaley that involves him sitting out right now. However, by the merits alone, Whaley deserves more playing time than what he’s currently getting.
A year after averaging nearly 14 minutes per game, Whaley is down to 4.3 per contest in a season where he’s only played six of the Huskies’ ten games. He did not see the floor in the games against Arizona or Florida State, even in the latter contest when Carlton and Cobb were both racked with foul trouble, leading to 20 minutes for Kassoum Yakwe. Yakwe, for his part, didn’t play especially well in that game, and at least a few of his minutes could have been sacrificed.
To be fair, Whaley is not a flawless player. His size might prevent him from playing center effectively and he doesn’t have much offensive range, so it would be hard to fit him on the floor as the second big man. At the very least, it’s understandable why Whaley has fallen in the rotation—the fit just isn’t great.
However, that ignores that the results — when he’s on the court — have only been positive. Defensively, Whaley is one of the best on the team, and he’s a great help defender. Whaley makes up for his deficiencies in strength and bulk with excellent awareness and athleticism.
In fact, he leads the team in Defensive Box Plus-Minus, a metric that measures a player’s defensive impact on the scoring margin. If that’s too mathematical for your tastes, there’s also Defensive Rating, which is simply a measure of how many points the opponent scores when a certain player is on the floor. Whaley also has the best number on the team in the latter stat. And if you’re suggesting that this is a result of small sample size and/or that Whaley has been primarily on the floor against bench units this season, it’s worth noting that his advanced stats were just as good last season.
It’s not as if his offensive game is bad, either. It’s limited, sure, but he makes few mistakes. Whaley might not have Carlton’s post game or the floor-stretching ability of Tyler Polley, but he can play above the rim, has more than one move in his arsenal, and doesn’t miss often, not forcing any shots. This wouldn’t be the backbone of his game, of course, but it’s important to note that no matter the circumstance, he wouldn’t be that much of a negative on offense, and that his defensive performance would surely outweigh it.
Given Whaley’s record on the court, both this season and last, it’s hard to make a case for him to be so far down in the rotation. He doesn’t have to play important minutes or big minutes or in crunch time, but it’s worth it to see what Whaley can do against big opponents. Every time Whaley has played, it’s benefitted the Huskies.