UConn fans may remember the career path of Hilton Armstrong. Through three years in Storrs, the 6-foot-11 center had only carved out a role as a backup big man, playing only one position, and had a minimal effect on the court even in his junior season. That’s a rather unremarkable collegiate arc, so even those unfamiliar with Armstrong can probably see where this is going: in his senior year, Armstrong underwent a massive improvement, became an impact player on both ends of the court, and was taken 12th overall at the NBA Draft.
If only the big movements of Armstrong’s story apply to Isaiah Whaley, that’s in large part because of how rare something like this is. While the age curve alone can provide for a considerable amount of performance adjustments, in many cases leading to misleading results, it’s far rarer to see rapid progression, before the age where you’re older than most of your competition, in the middle of a season.
In other words, even if you thought he deserved more playing time, you can’t explain through just natural development how Whaley went from shooting 41.9 percent from the floor on a 0.5 Assist/Turnover ratio and playing well only in help defense during the first half of his junior year, to shooting 60.2 percent from the floor while becoming a swing passer from the post and blocking nearly as many shots as he had fouls over the second half.
A leap this major, from a rotational afterthought (Whaley played two minutes in a close loss to Indiana) to the best big man on the team, is supposed to happen over the course of multiple years, not winter break.
Whaley’s ability affects the team beyond just his individual statistics at this point. As a hinge man passing out of the high post, he’s able to facilitate ball movement in a key area. He’s become a valuable roll man and finds the basket a lot more efficiently.
Defensively, while he’s always been a good shot-blocker in help defense, he’s improved his strength, and limited Memphis behemoth and future first-round pick Precious Achiuwa to an unimpressive performance, turning the ball over eight times and getting his shots swatted by Whaley another three times. Whaley’s also improved his lateral quickness, allowing him to step out into the perimeter to shut down passing lanes without needing to worry about being beaten to the rim, and becoming a quality point-of-attack defender. For the life of me, I still can’t figure out why teams tried running the pick and roll against the combo of Whaley and Christian Vital last year.
Going into Whaley’s senior season, the Huskies are getting a lot deeper. They’ll eventually get Akok Akok back from injury, highly-touted recruit Adama Sanogo is joining the ranks, Richie Springs is available after using his redshirt last season, and if Javonte Brown isn’t redshirted, he would be the sixth big man available, as Josh Carlton is also returning this season. With that much talent on the roster, Whaley may need to look for ways to expand his versatility.
As he said at media day, Whaley has been working out at the power forward spot this summer, likely in a combo role as a hybrid stretch four and pick-and-roll center. It seems as if Dan Hurley is emphasizing this as part of Whaley’s continued development, and may be seeking to use him in a variety of roles this season. With the first full roster (barring injuries) Hurley has dealt with since arriving at UConn, there will also be many more possible lineup combinations. Here’s a few lineups with Whaley at the four that I’m particularly interested in, and how I think each could work.
James Bouknight - Brendan Adams/Tyrese Martin - Tyler Polley - Isaiah Whaley - Josh Carlton
Now back in the Big East, the Huskies may not be used to the physicality present in the conference that largely wasn’t in the No Touching AAC. At times, they’ll likely need to go big, with a lineup full of strength and age. This seems like the most likely option for that circumstance, as James Bouknight is likely the best option among the current lead guards to play up a size if necessary, Brendan Adams came along as a switchable defender last season (and Tyrese Martin has a similar reputation), and the Whaley/Carlton combination has experience together, as they were a frequent and effective frontcourt duo during their freshman season.
Jalen Gaffney - RJ Cole - Bouknight - Whaley - Richie Springs
This is a lineup of passers and rim-runners, designed to take advantage of poor defenses. Jalen Gaffney and RJ Cole are the two best passers on the team, and with Bouknight, all can score easily at the rim. Richie Springs has chemistry with Bouknight going back to their days as high school teammates, and outside of Whaley, likely has the most vertical explosiveness among UConn big men. This is a lineup with quickness, but not one that sacrifices size.
Cole - Bouknight - Polley - Whaley - Akok
This lineup won’t be available until Akok fully recovers from injury, but here’s UConn’s best version of the Lineup Of Doom (Vital, Alterique Gilbert, Bouknight, Tyler Polley, and Akok) from last season: five shooters, five defenders. This year’s version might not be as effective as last year’s little-seen quintet, since its usefulness is dependent on a few things: Whaley stretching his shooting range, Bouknight becoming more switchable on defense, and Cole’s defense translating over from the weaker MEAC—although he technically was the best defender on a porous Howard squad. If all of those things happen, though, this lineup should leave UConn fans frothing at the mouth.
Gaffney - Andre Jackson - Adams/Martin - Whaley - Sanogo
I don’t think this will happen, but let’s suppose that other Huskies see a ton of improvement, and Whaley’s best usage is as the key forward on the team’s second unit. In that admittedly unlikely scenario, here’s what a common bench lineup will look like. All things considered, it’s got solid talent, but there are a few drawbacks. There’s little shooting consistency among this group, especially since we aren’t totally sure what four-star recruit Andre Jackson will look like during his first few collegiate games, and the offensive roles will have to be pretty rigid.
There’s good defensive ability in this group though, and it’ll be hard for teams to run ball screens on this lineup—Martin and Adams can afford to be aggressive, especially if Whaley is the jump man and can attack screens, while Sanogo’s rim protection does seem fairly established already. Teams may then try to target the relatively slower Sanogo and pull him out to the perimeter, but Whaley has proven to be very good in help, and Jackson carries a reputation for good defense. This lineup is far more uncertain than the preceding three, especially since Whaley will most likely be starting, but it’s a scenario worth considering.