The news that Isaiah Whaley would be returning for a fifth season was a welcome update for UConn. During his career, the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year progressed from an overachieving benchwarmer to a genuine asset in the starting lineup, and one of the Huskies’ most effective players.
While his improving offensive game is also a benefit to the rotation, the big man makes his name on the defensive end through versatility and a keen understanding of his athletic capabilities. What makes him so good is two key components of his play: he’s one of the best shot-blockers in the nation, and is able to single-handedly shut down pick and rolls when making the right read.
Whaley has always had length as a defender, but didn’t emerge as a dominant shot-blocker until his senior season, putting up a block percentage that ranked 20th among all Division I players. The improvement was sparked by increased foot speed, allowing him to close gaps on defense much quicker than before, and better timing.
While his athletic skills are numerous, one of his weaknesses physically is second-jump ability, and before the past season, Whaley would frequently get caught in the air and have little chance of recovery. As a senior, he read ball fakes better, especially in help defense situations, and now has enough confidence to be able to sit back and wait for a ballhandler to commit to a shot, knowing that he’ll still be able to make a play on the ball.
Making reads on the opponents’ offensive sets is something that even seasoned big men can struggle with, so it’s big for the Huskies that Whaley’s skill in this aspect of the game is above average. His anticipation isn’t perfect, but any time he makes the right read in a ball-screen situation, it kills the opponents’ play in its tracks. His quickness and length makes this possible, but his understanding of the designed actions of these sets helps too. It’s the same set of instincts that has led him to become a solid defender in transition as well, disrupting passing lanes in space and being able to close out on a shooter when necessary, without having to sacrifice a vulnerable area on the court in order to do so.
Having Whaley’s particular skillset available to the Huskies enables Dan Hurley to run a much wider variety of schemes than most teams can. His shot-blocking skills enable him to play the post in both man and help situations, and the athleticism and awareness means he can guard stretch fours easily while also being able to switch onto smaller guards and forcing them into tight windows on their drives.
What this means is that nearly every possible rotation for UConn’s big men could work. Throughout his career, Whaley has shown an affinity for raising the play of the forward next to him, as well as being able to slot in alongside virtually anyone. Adama Sanogo? We saw how well his pairing with Whaley worked last season. Samson Johnson? Having two tall, long rim-runners next to each other could wreak havoc on both ends of the floor. Akok Akok? If he starts to get toward the potential he’s always shown when healthy, he might be able to slot in at the three in certain lineups, depending on the offensive production on the floor around him.
I’ve personally been an optimist about the upcoming season for the Huskies (the first time in a while I’ve thought that, in fact), with the main reason being that even after a few key departures, the average lineup for UConn next season is going to be better than the last. Bringing back Whaley raises that baseline for the team not just through his individual play, but how he enables others to play in the lineup with him. The UConn defense was what enabled their strong play for most of the 2020-21 season. Whaley, the biggest part of that defense, will be there to lead it again next season.