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

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

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.

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg wins 14th as Nationals down Indians

Best of MLB: Stephen Strasburg wins 14th as Nationals down Indians

CLEVELAND -- Stephen Strasburg shut down Cleveland for seven innings and bounced back from his only loss this season, leading the Washington Nationals to a 4-1 win over the Indians on Wednesday.

Strasburg (14-1) began the season with 13 straight wins before he was beaten by the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 21. The powerful right-hander shook off that blemish, holding the Indians to only three hits as the Nationals recovered after blowing a two-run lead in the ninth and losing on Tuesday night.

Washington rookie Trea Turner drove in three runs and Daniel Murphy hit his 20th homer off Carlos Carrasco (7-4), who nearly matched Strasburg but was done in by one bad inning.

Nationals reliever Blake Treinen stopped Cleveland's threat in the ninth, getting a game-ending double play for his major league save.

Strasburg walked one and struck out seven (see full recap)

Cardinals snap Familia's saves streak, rally past Mets 5-4
NEW YORK -- Yadier Molina and pinch-hitter Kolten Wong each stroked an RBI double in the ninth inning, and the St. Louis Cardinals ended Jeurys Familia's streak of 52 straight saves in rallying past the New York Mets 5-4 on Wednesday night.

Yoenis Cespedes hit a go-ahead homer off Adam Wainwright to cap a three-run comeback in the seventh that gave the Mets a 4-3 lead. But then Familia, who hadn't blown a regular-season save opportunity since July 30 last year, finally faltered.

Jedd Gyorko drew a one-out walk in the ninth and was replaced by pinch-runner Randal Grichuk. Molina hit the next pitch to deep center field, and Grichuk scored standing up to tie it.

Molina was thrown out at third by Familia (2-2) on pinch-hitter Jeremy Hazelbaker's comebacker, but Hazelbaker stole second and scored when Wong lined a double just inside the left-field line.

Familia's franchise-record saves streak was the third-longest in major league history behind Tom Gordon (54) and Eric Gagne (84).

Jonathan Broxton (3-2) tossed a scoreless eighth and Seung Hwan Oh got three quick outs for his sixth save (see full recap)

Padres hit 3 HRs to extend streak, beat Blue Jays 8-4
TORONTO -- Adam Rosales hit a two-run home run, Alex Dickerson and Brett Wallace each hit solo shots and the San Diego Padres beat the Toronto Blue Jays 8-4 on Wednesday, avoiding a three-game sweep.

San Diego extended its club-record streak of games with at least one home run to 25. It's the longest run since the 2002 Texas Rangers set a major league record by homering in 27 straight.

Luis Perdomo (5-4) allowed four runs and six hits in 5 2-3 innings to win back-to-back starts.

Wallace reached base three times. He was hit by a pitch and scored on Rosales' homer in the third, connected off R.A. Dickey in the fifth and hit an RBI single off Joe Biagini in the sixth.

Dickerson homered for the fourth time in four games when he connected off Franklin Morales in the eighth. He is first Padres rookie to homer in four straight games.

Dickey (7-12) allowed seven runs, six earned, and four hits in 5 2-3 innings. The knuckleballer is winless in three starts and has allowed six home runs in that span (see full recap).

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Eric Rowe explains 'hiccups,' ready for fresh start in pads

Earlier this week, Doug Pederson admitted cornerback Eric Rowe had some “hiccups” during the spring, and seemed to indicate they stemmed from learning a new defense. 

Rowe says that wasn’t the problem at all.

“It wasn’t the new defense that was giving me whatever hiccups [Pederson] was talking about,” Rowe said on Wednesday as he reported for his second training camp (see Day 3 observations). “It was just, I was having trouble breaking on top of the routes, specifically the curl routes. But fade ball, deep post, digs, I didn’t have any trouble there. It was just curl routes. I just knew I had to work on it after the OTAs.”

Rowe, 23, said the problem was technical; he just needed to get his feet down quicker.

Whatever the problem, whatever the hiccups, it seems as though Rowe’s standing within the organization and on the depth chart isn’t what it once was.

Many thought he would be a starter in 2016, like he was at the end of 2015, but that wasn’t the way things were in the spring. Instead, Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks took those positions, and it looks like Nolan Carroll, returning from an injury, and rookie Jalen Mills, who hasn’t yet practiced in pads, are vying for playing time, too.

In back-to-back days earlier this week, Pederson and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz failed to mention Rowe’s name while listing players at the cornerback spot. Coincidental omissions or a vocalized unofficial depth chart?

Rowe could possibly go from starter to deep bench player, but that’s not what he’s planning on.

“I know I had a little ups and downs in OTAs, but now the pads are coming on,” Rowe said. “I feel like it’s a fresh start for me and I’m just ready to get out here.”

Pads go on Saturday.

“Right now, I think I still stand in a good position (with the team),” Rowe said. “Football is about the game with pads on. Now we’re really about to see in a couple days when we put the pads on.”

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

Small in stature, Wendell Smallwood likes to play big

He looks like a small back. He's built like a small back. He wants to play like a big back.

Wendell Smallwood, trying to make the Eagles as a reserve tailback, stands 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, but he said he’s got a surprise for defenders that think he’s one of those itty-bitty backs that dances around looking pretty … until they get hit.

“I think that’s what most people expect,” he said Tuesday. “But when I actually put my head down and fight for those extra yards and get under guys, guys start to say, ‘Hey!’ They start to feel me a little bit.

“So I definitely think that started to show my last year in college, and I started becoming more of an inside zone type of runner instead of an outside runner.”

None of this should be a surprise considering Smallwood’s position coach is Duce Staley, who during his 10-year NFL career was much more interested in running over people than around them.

Smallwood is nowhere near as big as Staley, who played at about 235 to 240. But that’s the kind of back he wants to be.

“It’s definitely important to me and it’s definitely what Duce wants me to do,” Smallwood said. “He wants me to hit the holes and hit ‘em hard and that’s the reason he got me here.

“Duce, he doesn’t like small backs. He doesn’t. I don’t think he believes in those guys. He was a big boy. Running dudes over left and right. That’s what he wants.”

Smallwood played sparingly as a freshman at West Virginia, shared time with Rushel Shell as a sophomore, then took over last year when he led the Big 12 with 1,519 rushing yards and added nine touchdowns, 26 catches and a 6.4 rushing average.

The Eagles plucked him out of Morgantown in the fifth round, and in an uncertain running back picture, he’s got a realistic chance to not just make the team but also play a role.

Just don’t expect him to play like a typical guy his size.

“I don’t consider myself a small back anymore,” he said. “People have always said that and I kind of started to agree, but then I looked at some of the guys who are around and I’m not a small back at all.

“I’m not little and the running style I like to do is suited for a big back, and my catching kind of throws people off. I definitely think I’m a mixture of both.”

Smallwood ranked 13th in Division I in rushing yards last year, and his 6.4 average was tied for ninth among backs with at least 200 carries.

He said a lot of defenders expect him to be a finesse back, a guy who likes to juke safeties and linebackers instead of bowling them over.

“Get me going downhill and I’ll get you what I can get you,” he said. “A lot of [defenders] kind of take the easy route and think it’s going to be easy and then the rest of the game they’re going low and trying to take my legs out.”

Look at the Eagles’ running back picture.

The starter is Ryan Mathews, who is talented but injury-prone. The backup right now probably is Kenjon Barner, who has 34 career carries. Then there’s Darren Sproles, whose 3.8 average last year was his lowest since 2009 and second lowest of his 11-year career.

With a strong camp, there’s no reason Smallwood can’t work himself into that picture.

The last frontier for the Northern Delaware native is blitz pickup. Something he was never asked to do at WVU.

“I don’t think I did basically any in college,” he said. “They didn’t ask me to block at all. I was mainly running routes.

“But as soon as I got here, Duce emphasized, ‘If you want to get on the field, you’re going to block. If you’re not going to block, you’re not going to play.'”

Staley’s No. 22 wasn’t available, but Smallwood is happy to wear the jersey number of another one of his favorite backs growing up, Correll Buckhalter’s No. 28, who he seems quite similar to.

It’s not fair to compare Smallwood to Staley, Buckhalter, Brian Westbrook or any other former Eagles back until the pads go on and we see what he’s really made of.

But Smallwood said he’s thrilled Staley is his coach and said there’s nobody he’d rather be playing for.

“I think he’s a great fit for me as a coach,” Smallwood said. “I need a kind of guy who drives me, tough guy, who’s not going to let up, who’s going to keep his foot on my back. I definitely need that kind of coaching.

“Just being around him growing up and seeing what he did when he was here and how he runs and him being one of my favorite backs, I was kind of star-struck to be around him, and now he’s my coach. It’s definitely a great situation for me.”