Penn State Basketball

Watkins providing strong defensive presence inside for Nittany Lions

Penn State forward Mike Watkins (24) is averaging 2.86 blocks per game heading into the Nittany Lions’ game against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night.
Penn State forward Mike Watkins (24) is averaging 2.86 blocks per game heading into the Nittany Lions’ game against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night.

Mike Watkins ranks among the country’s top shot-blockers early this season.

Even when the Penn State big man doesn’t block a shot, his presence can be felt.

He alters attempts as players look to finish drives or make a move in the post, and at the very least, makes opponents think twice once they get near the rim.

Watkins is averaging 2.86 blocks through seven games, good for 22nd in Division I going into Monday night’s games. The 6-foot-9 forward has recorded at least four blocks three times this season, and his teammates appreciate his ability to erase some of their mistakes when he swats away a shot attempt.

“He definitely helps us out a lot on the film,” Penn State guard Terrence Samuel said at the team’s media availability Monday. “If we get blown by, he just blocks a shot so it’s like, OK, you don’t get in trouble for that play.”

Watkins, coming off a four-block performance against George Washington, will face another skilled big man when Penn State (4-3) hosts Georgia Tech (4-1) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in an ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup.

Ben Lammers, Georgia Tech’s 6-foot-10 center, is averaging 17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

He is also the nation’s leading shot-blocker with 5.60 per game.

“They got a great big man,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. “He can do it all, which is again another reason why this game is great for us just like GW. You’re going to play (Purdue’s) Isaac Haas and (Indiana’s) Thomas Bryant and all the great bigs in the Big Ten. You just practiced against (George Washington’s Tyler) Cavanaugh and now you’re going to go up against Lammers.”

Cavanaugh, a 6-foot-9 forward, led George Washington with 15 points in Penn State’s win on Saturday.

Chambers said multiple players guarded Cavanaugh to disrupt him.

Watkins, meanwhile, showed his potential on both ends of the floor, finishing with 20 points, eight rebounds and didn’t commit a foul to go with his four blocks.

“He’s quick off his feet too, he’s got a really great burst and then his second jump is almost as good as his first jump, which is really special to have that type of jumping ability,” Chambers said.

The coach saw that same ability in Donovon Jack, who finished his career sixth on the program’s all-time list with 100 rejections.

And he sees similarities between Watkins and former 7-foot-1 center Jordan Dickerson.

Dickerson served as Penn State’s rim protector during his career, blocking 133 shots (third all-time at Penn State) and altering plenty more.

In his first season, Watkins has taken over that role.

“He’s our mother hen,” Shep Garner said after the team’s win over Grand Canyon. “He protects the paint. He rebounds, he blocks a lot of shots, he does his job.”

Watkins had three blocks that night after recording five blocks in each of the team’s first two games.

He started piling up blocks on Penn State’s first defensive possession of the season, and just more than two minutes into the season opener, he had three blocks.

His teammates are happy to have him patrolling the paint.

“It’s just good knowing you have somebody to have your back at all times,” Samuel said. “He’s rebounding, blocking the ball, he’s even scoring the ball at a high level so it’s just good to have him back there.”

Watkins is still developing on the offensive end.

And his coach was excited to see parts of his game come together — he went 6 for 7 from the free-throw line — in his 20-point performance against George Washington.

“He’s so far away from the player he’s going to be,” Chambers said.

Notes: Georgia Tech is coming off an 82-68 win over Tulane. Josh Okogie scored a freshman-record 38 points for the Yellow Jackets. ... The Nittany Lions will be wearing black and pink throwback uniforms Tuesday night. It will be the fourth time they will wear the throwback uniforms. ... The Penn State football team will be recognized at Tuesday’s game. The Big Ten East trophy will be on the concourse (Portal 29) for fans to take photos.

Ryne Gery: 814-231-4679, @rgery