On three separate occasions this season, Sahvir Wheeler has been sent to the ground after running straight into blindside screens.
The first came on the road against LSU, where a halfcourt pick was set by 7-footer Efton Reid. Wheeler couldn’t hear the cries from his teammates to watch out for the screen, colliding with Reid and crumbling to the ground. He played just four minutes before sitting out the remainder of that outing with a neck injury, and even missed the next contest against Georgia as a result.
The second and third instances both happened in a similar scenario and in the same game: on the road against a No. 1 Auburn opponent in a highly energetic environment. Wheeler again ran directly into a 7-footer near midcourt, this time meeting Auburn’s Walker Kessler. The attempts to call out the screen from Oscar Tshiebwe once again fell on deaf ears. Wheeler was forced to the bench when Kentucky needed its point guard the most, but this time around, he would return to the action.
The third knockdown happened with roughly 75 seconds left in regulation against Auburn. A clearly discombobulated Wheeler once again ran into Kessler, but out of a common pick-and-roll set where UK was on offense. There was nothing dirty about the play, but it was the breaking point for Wheeler’s pain threshold. He would not return as the ‘Cats lost by nine.
In reality, there is only so much that Kentucky can do to prevent Wheeler from smacking into another midcourt screen. Tshiebwe has been insistent in postgame press conferences that he’s calling out the incoming screens to Wheeler, but the rowdy crowd atmosphere has understandably drowned that out. Maybe it’s as simple as yelling louder or being more proactive about screaming out screens.
UK head coach John Calipari has proposed a different approach in helping ensure the safety of his 5-foot-9 point guard.
“Let me say this. So now we have the entire team responsible, if he’s picking up full(court), let him know there’s someone there,” Calipari said of Wheeler on Friday. “And Coach Chin [Coleman]. I told Coach Chin, you get a technical and run out on the floor if he doesn’t hear it. I’d rather you get thrown out of a game than him get hit again.”
Wheeler’s intensity on defense and ability to pick up and defend a ball handler for 94 feet is part of what makes him so dangerous and necessary for Kentucky, particularly on the point of attack. Hawking someone down the entire length of the court is intimidating, and UK certainly doesn’t want Wheeler to lay off that tenacity.
Admittedly, getting rocked a couple of times has caused him to take some extra caution when flying up and down the floor. When you aren’t entirely sure what’s in front of you, it can lead to some hesitation.
“I still play the same way,” Wheeler said on Friday before elaborating a bit. “Obviously there’s more people talking to me but I don’t know if you guys noticed last game I was still pressuring but every once in a while I was still peeking behind my head, making sure there was no one other. Because it’s not like these guys are doing it on purpose. Sometimes the gym is just too loud, if you’ve ever been in that environment, you’re locked in to what you’re doing, you can kinda get lost or blindsided by some things.”
As Wheeler implies, sometimes it’s just a matter of focusing on defending the ball and not realizing a hard pick might be on its way. But Kentucky is at its best when he plays that style of in-your-face defense. If his teammates want him to continue to play to that level, all of them better start calling out screens.
“It’s a collective effort and I’m just appreciative that Coach Cal and his staff gave everyone the responsibility to making sure that if he wants his guard pressuring fullcourt that they are to be protected as well,” Wheeler said.
Calipari won’t be able to change the rule on blindside screens, but he can at least make sure his players know how to better prepare for them.