Wilkins accepts, embraces reserve role for Vikings
Dec. 27, 2012
BELLINGHAM, Wash. -
By Alex Bigelow, WWU Sports Information Student Assistant
The question about Western Washington University senior guard Rico Wilkins has never been whether he can score - he once tallied 43 points in a single half in high school - or if he could play suffocating defense. It was whether he could adapt to coming off the bench for the Vikings rather then being a starter.
That question has now been answered with an emphatic, "Yes!"
Despite not starting a game all season, the 6-foot Wilkins is averaging 10.6 points a game while shooting 42.2 percent from 3-point range (19-of-45). His impact off the bench has helped WWU go unbeaten through its first nine games.
"He (Wilkins) comes into games four or five minutes in, when the other team is starting to figure things out and get into a rhythm, and then Rico instantly changes the pace of the game because he's so fast," said junior guard Richard Woodworth of his teammate. "He is just pure excitement."
The born-and-raised Dallas native has finally settled into his role as the back-up point guard, garnering praise from his coach and teammates for his ability to accept something he had never been asked to do prior to last season.
"Rico really is a starter, and he can be a starter anywhere in the country," said WWU head coach Tony Dominguez. "It's been hard to get him to understand his role, because he is so gifted, but since the last month of last season and this year, he has really embraced his role."
Wilkins admits that it wasn't easy adapting to coming off the bench. He was one of the top two scoring options on every team he had previously played on.
"Growing up, I was always the No.1 or No.2 option, so coming to Western, coming off the bench and being the sixth or seventh option was new to me," Wilkins said.
The turning point for Wilkins came during the Vikings' 93-83 win at Chaminade HI on Nov. 14. Wilkins exploded for 17 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field, including going 3-of-6 from 3-point range.
After that game Wilkins told his mother over the phone that he had finally come to terms with his role as a reserve.
"When they came off the Hawaii tournament, he finally told me, `Mom, I'm okay coming off the bench,'" said Mitchell Wilkins.
During that conversation, her son not only said that he had accepted his role on a team filled with talented players like himself, but went on to say how he began seeing the advantages of watching the game develop before he subbed in.
"Now, actually, I see it as a luxury for me to be able to come off the bench between John (Allen) and Richard (Woodworth) because a lot of teams key in on (them)," said Wilkins. "I can come in and sneak up on a lot of teams with my scoring. It's a benefit for me to sit and watch the game before I get in, and I can pretty much decide what I have to do when I get in so I'm more effective."
His reserve role has allowed him to be more effective in shorter bursts, Wilkins explained, using his speed and quickness on both ends of the floor to change the rhythm of the game. His contributions on the defensive end proved invaluable during last season's NCAA Division II national championship run when he continually shut down the opposition's top perimeter players.
And none was more important than the relentless defensive effort Wilkins put forth against Seattle Pacific's all-star performer David Downs.
In the NCAA West Regional final on March, 12, Wilkins helped hold the talented guard to just eight points, all of them coming at the free throw line.
"His presence defensively, that is one of the biggest pieces on our team," Woodworth said. "If we didn't have Rico, we'd have a lot more closer games and probably lose a few, and the fact that he can come in and really lock down any perimeter player is a huge, huge part of our team."
But all Wilkins has accomplished at WWU over this season and last almost never happened.
In a non-conference home game three years ago against Northwest Christian, Wilkins ruptured his Achilles' tendon.
The injury, Dominguez explained, came on an ordinary in-bound pass when Wilkins planted, "and out it went."
Wilkins said he didn't even realize what had happened, and when he went back to the locker room, he asked the trainer if he was out for the season. The trainer, Wilkins said, replied, "If it's your Achilles you heard pop, yes, you're out for the season."
Over the next year following surgery, Wilkins got up each morning at 6 a.m. to meet with head athletics trainer Lonnie Lyon and go through grueling sessions of physical therapy.
"When it first happened, I wasn't even sure it would be possible (to return) at the time, because of the way the injury was, I couldn't even see how you could fix that," Wilkins said.
Wilkins, though, continued to push himself, forcing coaches and the trainers to hold him back so he wouldn't risk reinjuring the repaired tendon.
"It was summer, and we were doing the summer league, and I played the first two games with the team, and it got back to the coaches that I played, and they were so mad," Wilkins said.
Despite the coaching staff trying to limit his minutes early in the summer and during training camp, Wilkins made his way back to the court last season and played in all 36 games, averaging 7.3 points.
Wilkins came to WWU after sitting out the 2009-10 campaign. The previous year he was the Northwest Athletic Association for Community Colleges Eastern Region MVP as a sophomore at Yakima Valley CC. He averaged 15.8 points, helping his team to a 22-6 record and the playoff semifinals.
As a freshman at Grayson County CC in Dennison, Texas, he averaged 20.8 points, scoring 47 points against the Murray State frosh and 41 versus Paris CC.
Wilkins was a Dallas Morning News Tribune third-team All-Area pick as a senior at DeSoto High School. He helped the Eagles to a 34-5 ledger and the regional semifinals. He scored 43 points versus Arlington-Sam Houston, all of them in the first half.
Wilkins is set to graduate after spring quarter, and said he looks to find work with his skills as a special effects creator and graphics designer. He also hopes to draw interest from hoop teams located overseas.
"If I can keep playing and make a living out of it, I'd love to do that," Wilkins said.
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