The headline of the year for UConn in the 2020-2021 season is, of course, the return to the Big East. However, the tale of Isaiah Whaley may be the most intriguing individual storyline of the year for UConn fans.
Isaiah Whaley, a man of many nicknames. As UConn makes its highly anticipated return to the Big East, Isaiah Whaley (affectionately referred to as “The Wrench” by UConn fans) has the potential to cement his place in UConn history. Whaley, a rather unheralded 3-star recruit coming out of high school, is now poised to help bring UConn back to national relevance. To date, Whaley has played in 86 games, started 18 of those and is averaging a rather unimpressive 3.6 points and 3 rebounds per game. However, as anyone who has been watching knows, these numbers do not adequately tell the story of the rise of the wrench.
As a freshman in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) during the 2017-2018 season, Whaley (also known as “Pork Chop” back then) saw the floor in 30 games, starting 12, while averaging almost 14 minutes per game. Fans quickly became fond of Whaley for his intensity, effort, and athleticism. Fast forward to the end of the season, however, and the coaching staff that recruited Whaley to UConn was fired. The national narrative since then has largely focused on how Kevin Ollie left the cupboard bare for the new head coach, with players who did not fit the prototypical UConn pedigree – including Whaley.
Enter Dan Hurley. Dan Hurley was hired as UConn’s new coach in March of 2018. A coach with a reputation for toughness, defense, and player development. Despite the change of guard, no players transferred; Hurley and company began to work. The new coaching staff had to figure out what they were working with and start piecing the puzzle together. How did Isaiah Whaley, too small to be a true center and not enough of an offensive threat to be an effective stretch forward, fit into this puzzle? As a sophomore, it appeared he did not. An early ankle injury sidelined Isaiah Whaley and he seemed to lose any perceived role he might have had. Whaley was unable to find his way back into the rotation, playing in 23 games with zero starts and averaging only 3.6 minutes per game.
During the offseason, maniacal fans took to social media imploring certain players to transfer. Whaley chose to rise to above the noise, and UConn fans should be glad he did. Hurley challenged him, letting Whaley know that if he wanted to see the floor as a junior he was going to have to bulk up and develop more of an offense game.
I was challenged to get stronger and improve my offensive game. I have gained 18 pounds making me 220 and am continuing to improve my offensive game. #ChallengeAccepted pic.twitter.com/8cH9yYlOT6— Isaiah (@IsaiahWhaley) June 22, 2019
Enter “Poppers”. As we all now know, junior Isaiah Whaley came back almost unrecognizable. A bigger, stronger Whaley came back with a jump shot that earned him a new nickname, Poppers. Whaley became a key member of a UConn team that would end their time in the AAC on a run that has left everyone wondering: what if? What if the season had not been cut short by a global pandemic? As a junior, Whaley averaged about 19 minutes a game, earning a starting role in the final six games of the season. In these last six games, UConn went 5-1 and Whaley’s numbers exploded. Over this six-game span, he averaged 13.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game, shooting 59% from the field and 79% from the line. Could Whaley maintain this level of play, even against better competition, in his senior season?
Isaiah Whaley took Dan Hurley’s challenge to heart. He gained 20 pounds in the offseason, developed a jumper (earning him the nickname “Poppers”), and ended up with an 18-minute-long season highlight reel. (Video Credit: tcf15).
Enter the Big East. Another year, another nickname. Whaley’s versatility and willingness to the dirty work has earned him yet another nickname, this time from the UConn twitterverse. The Wrench. I think this one is going to stick.
Isaiah Whaley now has a chance to step into the spotlight and show everyone what he has known all along. He not only belongs right where he is, at UConn, but he can help lead UConn back to national relevance. A limited sample size of three games so far this season has shown everyone all that they needed to see. Whaley has started all three games, playing 27 minutes per contest, and is averaging an impressive 10.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 3.7 blocks per game. If not for Whaley, UConn may not be siting at 3-0. UConn struggled against the University of Hartford – Whaley’s grit and determination proved huge in this game. Whaley made key plays down the stretch to secure the victory. In addition, UConn most assuredly would not have taken out the long and athletic USC Trojans, a team featuring future NBA lottery picks in the Mobley brothers. In other words, Whaley has been a critical, irreplaceable piece of any success UConn has had over the last several seasons, and that will not change this year.
UConn is 9-2 in games that Whaley scores at least 10 points and grabs 5 boards— UConnBigEast (@UConnBigEast) December 7, 2020
This season he is averaging 10.7 ppg and 7.3 rpg
Last season, UConn went 6-2 in games that Whaley had at least 10 and 5. The losses came at Temple and at Houston#SwingTheWrench pic.twitter.com/Iead6L5nwf
The rise of The Wrench over his four-year career at UConn has been an exciting storyline for anyone following through these down years. Isaiah Whaley has gone from an afterthought to arguably (but not really arguably) the second-best player, and perhaps the most important player, on a UConn team featuring a potential NBA lottery pick in James Bouknight. Not bad for someone who played 3 minutes a game as a sophomore. Whaley is now a fan favorite and UConn fans are hoping that Hurley, Bouknight, and yes, Isaiah Whaley, can help bring them back to the promise land that they so desperately craved over their 7-year hiatus in the AAC. I am excited to watch the continued rise of The Wrench, and I believe Whaley and company are up to the task.