As Penn State forward Mike Watkins works his way back into the team’s rotation, much has been made of the problems that caused him to miss the first five games of this season. It is well known that Watkins was held out of action while dealing with legal and mental health issues.
But according to Nittany Lion coach Pat Chambers, a much different problem — dating back to last season — is preventing Watkins from making as much of an impact as Chambers hopes he ultimately will.
Watkins missed the last nine games of the 2017-18 season with an unspecified right knee injury. That included the Big Ten Tournament and Penn State’s entire NIT championship run.
“First, he’s got to get in shape,” Chambers said during a press conference at the Jordan Center Monday. “Two, he’s got to trust his body. … We’ve got great docs here; we’ve got the best trainer in the world here. Just trust it. But it’s gonna take him a while.”
In two games since returning to the floor, Watkins has logged a total of 32 minutes. He has taken only two shots (making one), but has come up with five steals, four blocks and six rebounds. Chambers has used sophomore starter John Harrar instead of Watkins at the end of close games, even though Watkins was an All-Big Ten Defense pick last season.
“It takes you a little while to finally say, ‘I’m back, I’m feeling good,’” Chambers said. “So he’s going through it with the conditioning part and the mental part of his knee.
“So it’s gonna take some time,” he added. “But I knew that. Hopefully we just keep giving him minutes here and there, and develop the habits again.”
Chambers said Watkins’ knee injury did not require surgery and that he was back to 100 percent physically during the summer. But there is a big difference between working out or playing in practice as opposed to competing in games.
So even though Watkins continued to practice with the team while he was held out of action this year, missing the five games — not to mention scrimmages against Temple and West Virginia — has obviously delayed his return to full effectiveness.
If Watkins can get back to 100 percent, Penn State figures to be a much more dangerous team. In 2017-18, he led the Big Ten (and finished second in the nation) in field goal percentage (68.5). He was third in the Big Ten in rebounding (9.4 per game) and third in total blocks (68).
“Hopefully he’ll be up and running and playing like himself by January,” Chambers said.
Watkins and the Nittany Lions will be back in action Tuesday night, when Indiana visits the BJC. The game tips at 7 p.m. and can be seen on BTN.