Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Ask Temple senior Khalif Wyatt who influenced his game growing up, and he names one player.
No, Wyatt (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) and Iverson (6-0, 170) aren’t really built the same. Wyatt doesn’t have Iverson’s lightening-quick handle, his high-end top speed or anywhere near the amount of tattoos as the former Philadelphia 76ers star. But that’s not the point. That’s not what drew a young Wyatt to idolize one of the top pure scorers in NBA history.
“He just left it all out there,” Wyatt said before the Owls practiced on Tuesday. “He did whatever it took for his team to win, whether he had to take 40 shots or he only took 20 shots, but he was just real competitive and he always wanted to win.”
The next words out of his mouth could have described either guard as well: “And as much as he was misunderstood, all he really was trying to do was win and he was leaving it all out there.”
Yes, it’s easy to misunderstand Khalif Wyatt.
Opposing fans certainly can’t stand him. He’s expressive, making it perfectly clear when he’s not happy with a call. He’s sneaky, subtly using his body to initiate contact and draw fouls. And on top of all of it he’s lethal, rising to the occasion in Temple’s biggest moments and delivering.
“He’s got a different way about him, there’s not that many guys like Khalif out there,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “But there’s a goodness to Khalif and that’s what I appreciated about him. He has no animosity in him.”
His raw talent wasn’t what kept him off the court his freshman season back in 2009-10, when he appeared in 10 games for a total of 19 minutes, scoring a total of five points.
“I think like a lot of young people, they go from being the best player on their team to the youngest player on their college team with no experience and you don’t get what you got the year before, you’ve got to work a little bit,” Dunphy said. “He wasn’t understanding of all of that stuff early on.”
“I always thought he had the potential to be good, it was just how his work ethic worked out,” said Mike Evans, Wyatt’s coach at Norristown High School. “We talked a couple of times that season…we told him from day one you’ve got to work, you’ve got to keep working hard.”
Reflecting back on that first year on campus, Wyatt knows now that he didn’t put in the work he needed to in order to see the court.
“I was really in the doghouse, because of the fact that I wasn’t playing my freshman year, it didn’t help any because I wasn’t trying to practice and stuff like that,” he said.
From that doghouse to where he is now gives him all that much more appreciation for the journey.
The rise from little-used freshman to 2013 Atlantic 10 Player of the Year is not unlike that of a few former Owls who’ve played in the Liacouras Center over the last decade. Dunphy is notorious for bringing players along slowly in their first years but rewarding them as upperclassmen.
Ramone Moore, who was an Atlantic 10 first-teamer by the time he graduated in 2012, took three years to crack the starting lineup. Scootie Randall, now a redshirt senior on the Owls, spent most of his freshman and sophomore seasons watching from the bench.
“There’s history to look back on, too, that if I bide my time, my time’s going to come and when it does I need to make the best of it,” Dunphy said. “I think a lot of those guys did, but it doesn’t minimize the frustration that they feel.
“It’s okay to be frustrated–if you’re not frustrated then I don’t know how good you can be later on.”
And though Wyatt was never promised immediate playing time–Evans said Dunphy “didn’t want (Wyatt) to step right in and do anything but just learn”–it’s still never easy to adjust to being the low man on the totem pole.
And he was frustrated.
But somewhere between Year One and Year Two on N. Broad Street, it clicked. Wyatt began putting in the time between games, and Dunphy rewarded him with time on the court.
“He got the message–it took him a while but he got the message,” Evans said. “And it paid off for him.”
Wyatt averaged 10.1 points in 20.7 minutes off the bench in 2010-11, winning the Atlantic 10’s Sixth Man of the Year award as a sophomore. As a junior, he moved into the starting lineup and was named Second Team All-Conference with a 17.7 ppg average. He had arrived.
“When he started to pay attention to what all the coaching that was going on–like work harder at this, get in this spot, don’t throw that pass, that’s a riskier pass than we need–I think it started to click,” Dunphy said. “He did better academically, he was getting older, he was maturing as a person.
“When that happened, then we got to be better acquaintances.”
Like any successful relationship, the two began to build trust. There was the trust that the young guard had to have in the old mentor, that Dunphy did indeed know what he was talking about–as if the hundreds of wins and double-digit NCAA tournament appearances weren’t proof enough. But there was another trust that was developing as well.
“There was a confidence level that he started to bring to me where he would suggest something and I would say ‘You know what? That makes a lot of sense,’” Dunphy said. “Whereas the year before if he had suggested something, I would say ‘C’mon, get out of here, that has no merit to it whatsoever.’ But all of a sudden now that he showed he was a pretty smart guy and a well-thought out aspect of the game he’s bringing to me, I said ‘you know what, I’ve got to trust in him a little more.’”
“He definitely trusts me,” Wyatt said. “With a lot of trust you can’t take advantage of it, you can’t just throw over-the-head passes and turn the ball over 20 times. He gives me a lot of trust and he puts the ball in my hands a lot.
“I needed coach Dunphy and coach Dunphy needed me and we found a way to meet in the middle,” he added. “I’m just happy that he stuck with me and he never gave up on me, he gave me a great opportunity.”
Ultimately, what makes Khalif Wyatt great is a factor he shares with so many others who come up big time and time again when the spotlight shines brightest: his confidence.
“He adds a fearless dimension to whatever it is he’s trying to do,” Dunphy remarked.
“I think I can make shots,” Wyatt said when asked about his best attribute. “I think I can pretty much get my shot off whenever I want.”
It would be cocky if it wasn’t true. Whether it’s leaning back to get a jumper over a taller opponent, a head fake to get his defender in the air or just using his body to maneuver his way to to the hoop, Wyatt simply gets his shot off when he wants to. And lately, he’s been making them in bunches.
“He’s such a great one-on-one player that he can get his own shot at any time,” La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini told CoBL. “He’s not only capable of getting his shot but he’s capable of making them and making them at the biggest of moments.”
Why not be confident, when you understand the game as well as Wyatt does? It’s more than just the ability to put the ball through the hoop–it’s knowing offenses and defenses and situations, realizing when to pull the trigger and when to give it up to a teammate.
“He has a pace to his game that people would say it’s an old man’s game because he’s watching, viewing and reading what it is you’re doing,” Dunphy said.
“His mind is basketball, his thinking about basketball was always above everybody that I saw on that level,” Evans said. “It was just something he had, he was always watching basketball, he was always around it, he was just a student of the game.”
Part of that came out of necessity–Wyatt doesn’t have top-end speed, though he can get from point A to point B quickly enough to be effective. He’s not the most athletic player, either, using his size to his advantage as much as possible. And he knows it.
“I’ve got a good knowledge of the game, so I try to use that to my advantage more than my athletic ability and my speed that I don’t really have, or my jumping ability,” he said. “Just try to use my brain and just play for my teammates and just try to make the right play as much as I can.”
He’s confident when it comes to the refs, too. Never one to shy away from reacting to or discussing a call, Wyatt still manages to avoid momentum-killing technical fouls. Instead, the whistles are mostly kind to Wyatt; his 216 free-throw attempts are the sixth-most in the country for guards.
“I think I actually have a good relationship with the refs,” he said. “They say it’s hard to ref me because they say I throw my body around and stuff like that, and I initiate a lot of the contact, so they don’t know whether to call a foul or when I’m trying to fool them. It’s really me just playing my game and refs are a big part of the game.
“Whether I’m talking to the refs or I’m whining, it’s all me just thinking about winning and trying to sometimes pick myself up. Bottom line, it’s me just being competitive and me trying to win,” he added.
This year, it all came together.
In the deepest year in Atlantic 10 history–the league added Butler and VCU, two mid-major powerhouses, in the offseason–Wyatt was easily the best player. His overall scoring average (19.9 ppg) was 2.5 points higher than the next most productive player, La Salle’s Ramon Galloway. That average jumped up to 22.4 ppg in league play, a full five points higher than Galloway’s.
Not that he didn’t share the ball as well–his 4.1 apg average clocking in at seventh in the conference. He was also in the top 10 in the league in 3-pointers, steals per game and free-throw percentage.
“I think Khalif has had a tremendous offensive basketball year,” Dunphy said. “I’m not sure it strikes you right away how impressive this is but in five or 10 years you’ll look back on what was a great Atlantic 10 league and season and he was voted the best player, and I think really what you take away from that is what other people think about you and his peers voted for him to be the player of the year and that’s very impressive.”
Wyatt came up biggest in the team’s biggest games. The latest was a 30-point outing in a must-win home game against No. 19/21 Virginia Commonwealth in his final home game at the Liacouras Center, on national TV. There was also the 33-point effort in a win over No. 3 Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, or the string of 17 consecutive double-digit efforts to close out the season.
“You try to prepare for Khalif but you really can’t,” said Giannini, who’s had to gameplan for Wyatt for the last three seasons. “You know you could cut him off and he spins the other way. You know you could be in a stance and he just rises up and makes a 30-footer. You know you can try to block his shot and he’ll lean into you and go to the free-throw line.”
“It’s just fun to watch, because I saw it live myself during high school and you just see the kid that’s having fun doing something he loves,” Evans said. “And that’s the whole thing, he’s having fun out there, doing something he loves, and it’s just a pleasure to watch him play.”
With 616 points already this season, Wyatt’s one of 12 players in Temple history to break the 600-point barrier; only six have scored 700. His 1495 career points are currently 16th in school history; unless the Owls go on a significant run in both tournaments he’ll likely finish between Aaron McKie/Mike Vreewsyk (1650 points, 11th) and John Baum (1544, 13th) on the school’s all-time scoring list.
“I think coach Dunphy deserves a lot of credit. A lot of credit,” Wyatt said. “He dealt with me for these four years and through everything, through ups and downs, he just stuck with me the whole time. He never really gave up on me.”
Once you understand Khalif Wyatt, it’s easy to see why.
Just like Iverson, he’s going to give it his all every time he steps out on the court. Just like Iverson, he’s going to do whatever he needs to do to get his team to have just one more point than the other at the end of the night.
And just like Iverson, he’s got the confidence to get it done.