The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)
Most ‘invaluable’ player
Whaley expected to be key member of UConn frontcourt
STORRS — Isaiah Whaley has worked his way into the UConn lineup over the years, even deep into the program’s identity.
He goes by “Wrench,” a nickname first ascribed by fans, one that took hold on social media and eventually worked its way into everyday use by teammates and even coaches.
Dan Hurley recent called Whaley something else: “Invaluable.”
“It’s a great message,” Hurley said of Whaley’s evolution as a player and contributor. “It’s the anti(transfer portal and the anti- ‘If things don’t go my way quickly I’ll try to find an easier route.’ It’s a great message for the culture of basketball, that you do more damage to your future when you run from challenges and refuse to take a look in the mirror and work on your deficiencies. Isaiah worked on his deficiencies. He made himself invaluable. He’s a poster child for us in player development, in a lot of ways.”
Players enter programs and experience praise in different ways and at different times.
In the same conversation with the media Tuesday at the Werth Champions Center, Hurley looked toward the area of the gym that celebrates every UConn player selected in the NBA draft lottery over the years and said of freshman Samson Johnson, “He has wall potential.” He called sophomore Adama Sanogo the team’s best player.
Whaley — a 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward — is not a player with basketball gifts that jump right out. He wasn’t anointed much of anything other than another player on the roster when Hurley took over in 2018. No singular aspect of his game screams potential
that would land him in a draft or on a wall.
But here he is, having decided to return to UConn for a fifth and final season, set to finish a project that started at the bottom end of the rotation. And now he’s “invaluable,” considered one of the most dependable players on a deep team with expectations that have not existed since the program’s dip just prior to his arrival.
Whaley was the only player to start all 23 games last year and averaged eight points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. He was the Big East co-defensive player of the year (with St. John’s guard Posh Alexander). He’s expected to again be a frontcourt anchor this season, the blue-collar, dependable worker at the heart of a lineup with potential.
“It’s been something,” Whaley said. “It’s been beautiful to see, especially when I first came here, being on one of the worst UConn teams (that finished 14-18 in 2017-18). Seeing that and then seeing the whole transformation and being able to be a part of it, that’s been a special feeling. Now I want more for UConn. I want to help UConn take that next step and I want to be a part of it.”
The season opener is Nov. 9 against Central Connecticut. The Huskies are deep enough across the board, and inexperienced enough in some areas, for the ensuing few months to feature all sorts of tinkering and change. Nothing is set in stone with the rotation, but Whaley, who averaged 27.7 minutes last season, is as close to locked into a role as any player.
Once, he nearly was a castaway. Whaley averaged just 3.5 minutes as a sophomore in 2018-19, Hurley’s first season, after averaging 13.8 in Kevin Ollie’s final season.
Back then, he was known mostly as “Pork Chop,” a nickname that started in high school as recognition for his favorite food. A couple years ago, UConn teammates started calling Whaley “Poppers,” because he had improved his mid-range shooting. He averaged six points, five rebounds and 18.7 minutes as a junior in 2019-20.
Soon, “Wrench” was in play, too — because Whaley just works, pulls out the needed tool, gets things done in a variety of ways.
“I think, really, he just got an opportunity to play,” fellow fifth-year senior Tyler Polley said of Whaley’s development. “He’s gotten opportunity. Now he’s showcasing it to the world, how good he is. Whenever he strips the ball during a ball-screen, or blocks a shot, makes a defensive play, we say, ‘Bring the wrench out.’ ”
Teammates still call him Pork Chop sometimes. “Zay,” is always fine, too.
“And many other things that we’ll keep classified, though, because it’s inhouse,” Polley said.
UConn, on paper, has one of its best frontcourt rotations in years, with Whaley and Sanogo most established. Johnson and redshirt sophomore Akok Akok, who missed 11 months due an Achilles’ tear, are in line to initially compete for the third spot. Redshirt sophomore Richie Springs could also play himself into the rotation.
There are fewer questions about Whaley than any of them.
Asked what Whaley brings to the team now that he could not a couple years ago, Hurley said, “Pretty much everything. He’s a weapon in ball-screen defense, he’s an under-rated passer. His basketball IQ and game management is very, very good. The only thing we need him to do is to make 33 percent from 3 and shoot three of them a game. If he can do that, it would be a dream come true because he gives you great positional versatility and he’s a guy, when you play bigger at the 4 with Adama, who can pass it hopefully shoot it well enough for you to play that way. And when Adama’s out, he’s a gritty 5 man too, a small 5. He’s got unbelievable value.”
Whaley fought for such recognition. He fought to be in this place. He’s still fighting. He focused much of the offseason on improving his jump shot. He’s become a better on the ball defender. He’s an experienced leader. He knows what it’s like to have to work for a role, a reputation.
“That’s why I’ve always been super intense and I’ve never gotten complacent,” he said. “I feel like the hunter and not the hunted.”
Whaley said his UConn experience has been, “Just trying to find my way and find something I can bring to the team, find a way I can help us win.”
Whaley will be asked to do a lot this season. UConn, as Hurley said, needs its post players to consistently do one of two things: Make 3-pointers as part of smaller lineups, or dominate the lane and glass as part of bigger lineups.
“We’re going to be a lot faster, a lot more mobile and we’re going to be able to play multiple positions,” Whaley said. “I think it’s going to help our offense a lot more. It’s going to open up lanes where a guard can drive. I think we’re going to be a lot faster and (there are) going to be different rotations, different pieces, different players who can play in different spots.”