Originally created 01/25/03

Damien Wilkins has struggled this year



Georgia men's basketball coach Jim Harrick calls it getting lost in the game.

It happens when his team scraps its individualism and subjects itself to the methodical flow of his high-post offense. When all five parts work in harmony, it is something to behold.

To Harrick, getting lost in the game is a good thing - unless he's talking about Damien Wilkins, a junior guard who is still a work in progress after transferring from North Carolina State.

"Anybody that transfers schools has lost a lot of self image," said Harrick, whose No. 19 Bulldogs play host to No. 24 Auburn today at 1 p.m. "To build that back up, it takes a lot of time."

Wilkins, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound nephew of former Georgia great Dominique Wilkins, hasn't been a colossal failure in his first season with the Bulldogs (11-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference). It has been frustrating nonetheless.

Having come off the bench most of the season, Wilkins is averaging seven points per game and shooting 36 percent from the floor. Despite being a solid one-on-one player who can exploit matchup advantages by blowing past opposing players for dunks, he has struggled to fit into the framework of Harrick's offensive system.

"I've had to make a lot of adjustments after spending my whole life playing the whole game," Wilkins said. "Now I'm in a sixth- and seventh-man role. It was hard to adjust to it, but I understand what it's all for. As long as the team is winning, I'm fine with it."

Georgia's coaches envisioned more before the season. Last year, when Wilkins was sitting out the year because of NCAA transfer rules, he dazzled them during scrimmages against the Bulldogs' first team.

This year, Wilkins was going to be the guy who would spell star point guard Rashad Wright.

Apart from a few encouraging moments, this year has mostly been an exercise in frustration. The low point come Nov. 30 against Minnesota, when Wilkins was removed from the starting lineup after starting the first three games.

"My confidence was a little shaken after the Minnesota game," he said. "It was sort of hard to adjust, because I didn't know what it was for."

For the next few games, the lack of confidence showed. With each missed shot, he seemed more timid and less involved in the offense.

"I was just forcing things to happen, and it was just getting worse and worse," said Wilkins, who has played all five positions this season.

Assistant coach Jim Harrick Jr. said Wilkins didn't take the demotion well.

"It's a situation where he's an emotional guy," he said. "He builds himself up with confidence, and when it's down, he's very hard on himself."

Resigned to the fact that Wilkins' development could take longer than they hoped, Georgia's coaches are trying to be patient and understanding.

"He's not only learning a new system, but he's learning a new position at point guard," Harrick Jr. said. "It's the most difficult position to learn, a lot like quarterback. And the high-post offense, John Wooden's system, is a difficult system to learn."

Wilkins' struggles aren't for lack of effort. He's always at the gym hours before practice and games and he's usually the last to leave.

He showed progress in Wednesday's 81-76 overtime win over Tennessee. With forward Chris Daniels hampered by foul trouble, Wilkins scored seven points, had three assists and a steal in 23 minutes.

With 1:43 left in regulation and the shot clock near zero, he hit a fall-away jumper from the right baseline to give the Bulldogs a 63-59 lead.

"He picked the team up and put them on his shoulders," Harrick Sr. said. "He gave us some energy and enthusiasm."

Now that he's more comfortable with his role, Wilkins is hoping to give a whole lot more.

"I know what Coach Harrick wants me to do when I come into the game now," he said. "Just by listening to him and staying patient, getting lost in the game and letting everything come to me, things have been going a lot smoother."

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com