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Who Are You and What Have You Done With Damien Wilkins?

Mar 25, 2013, 11:54 AM EDT

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The reasons for the Sixers’ surprisingly improved proved play of
late—four wins in their last seven games, including victories over the
playoff-bound Nets and Pacers and extremely close losses to the
NBA-hottest Heat and Nuggets—are many. The team’s frontcourt has been
playing dramatically better: Spencer Hawes has averaged a 16/10 on 56%
shooting over the stretch, and Thaddeus Young, finally healthy again
after missing a couple weeks with a hamstring strain, has matched with a
17/7 on 55% shooting. Dorell Wright has also rediscovered his Golden
State shooting stroke, averaging 12 a game and shooting 19 of 38 from
deep, and with the exception of a dismal two-point performance in Los
Angeles, Jrue Holiday has been Jrue Holiday, averaging about 17 points
and nine assists, shooting 48% from deep and even keeping his turnover
average to under three a game.

But the most surprising reason for the Sixers’ hot stretch is
undoubtedly the play of Damien Wilkins. Signed as an emergency-valve
veteran wing player at season’s beginning, Wilkins was the source of
much mockery for Sixers fans earlier in the season for Coach Collins’
insistence on playing him big minutes, despite the fact that he was a
33-year-old career bench scrub blocking younger, more skilled players
like Wright and even rookie Arnett Moultrie from getting minutes they
seemed more deserving of. And the numbers justified the scorn—before
March, Damien was averaging just 2.6 points a game on 37% shooting
(including a dismal 13% from deep) in ten minutes of game action, with a
PER in the not-high single digits.

Remarkably, however, all that appears to have changed in March. In
12 games this month—eight of which Wilkins even started—Damien is
averaging a highly respectable 12 points on 54% shooting, including 39%
from deep. He’s even proven himself to be a decent secondary playmaker
since moving to the starting lineup, posting three or more assists in
five of his eight starts. For arguably the first time since his days
playing with the Ray Allen-led Sonics in Seattle, Damien Wilkins is a
productive, relevant professional basketball player again.

The thing that really strikes me about Wilkins this last month or so
is the energy and athleticism he brings to the team—neither of which
you would exactly expect a 33-year-old career benchwarmer to provide
your ballclub. (To be fair, Damien is the son of ’90s lockdown defender
Gerald Wilkins, and the nephew of Hall-of-Fame scorer and slam dunk
champion Dominique Wilkins, so genetics are obviously on his side.) The
Sixers have been playing at a much faster pace in recent games, and
Wilkins is a big catalyst for that, constantly moving in the half-court,
running to the corners on the secondary break, and attacking the basket
wherever possible. He hasn’t been the team’s MVP over this
stretch—that’d probably be Thad, or maybe even Spence—but he’s been the
guy most representative of the team’s new style and improved efficiency.

The one real negative of Wilkins’ improvement as of late is that it
reflects kind of negatively on one of his much-higher-upside wingmates:
Evan Turner. While much of the team has hit an individual groove the
last two weeks, Evan’s play could most generously be described as
“unexceptional”—under 11 points, four rebounds and four assists a game,
including 42% shooting and 21% from deep. Worse, despite being nearly a
decade older, Damien consistently outworks Evan on the court, cutting
harder, pushing faster on the break, switching and fighting through
screens better on defense. Tellingly, is lineup the Sixers have found
the most success with recently is one with Damien and Dorell on the
wings and Evan on the bench—they’ve only played about 34 minutes
together as a five-man unit, but 82Games.com lists it as the Sixers’ lineup with the highest win percentage.

And of course, the other negative about the Wilkins surge is that
not only is it helping the team win meaningless games in the
short-term—wins hurting their draft position, if you care about such
things—but it means the team might make an effort to re-sign the
33-year-old, costing them precious cap space and sending a message that
being competent is still more important to this franchise than
potentially being great. Still, Damien’s played a big part in making an
unwatchable team watchable this season, and for those of us who will
continue to watch the team regardless, that’s something to be pretty
thankful for.

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