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Monday, June 17, 2013
Penn State’s growing presence in Philly

By Adam Finkelstein

Penn State landed two commitments last week -- the first from 2015 big man Mike Watkins (Philadelphia/Imhotep Charter) and the second from 2014 guard Shep Garner (Philadelphia/Roman Catholic) -- as Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers continues to demonstrate his program’s growing presence in Philly.

Chambers is a Philadelphia guy, having played at Philadelphia University and then coached under Jay Wright at Villanova. He relied on those local ties even when recruiting at Boston University and has brought a similar approach to University Park.

Despite his deep roots in Philadelphia, developing those inroads at Penn State has been a gradual process. Penn State has historically been on the outside looking in at Big 5 schools like Villanova, Temple and St. Joseph’s when it came to recruiting the city’s top talent, which is only natural considering the 200 miles that separates Pennsylvania’s biggest city from its state university.

Shep Garner
Shep Garner is one of two Philly natives to recently commit to Penn State.
Chambers’ first recruiting class at Penn State in 2012 included forward Brandon Taylor, a New Jersey native who played his AAU ball with Team Philly. In the 2013 class, the Nittany Lions landed a late-blooming big man from Philly in Julian Moore and came close to reeling in ESPN 100 swingman Brandon Austin before he ultimately reopened his commitment and pledged to Providence.

Penn State has also landed two Philadelphia natives via transfer, first picking up former Southern Mississippi guard D.J. Newbill, who was named the team’s MVP this year in his first season at Penn State, and then adding John Johnson from Pittsburgh at the mid-semester break.

Now, the recent commitments of Garner and Watkins have only continued to solidify the Nittany Lions’ growing influence in the Philadelphia market. Garner committed to Penn State over St. Joseph’s, among others, and gives Chambers a scoring combo guard he can pair with Isaiah Washington (Williamsport, Pa./Williamsport) in his 2014 backcourt.

Watkins is a 6-foot-8 big man who made a big name for himself this spring. Despite his obvious tools and long-term potential, he was flying largely under the radar through his sophomore season at John Bartram High (he’ll transfer to Imhotep Charter for his junior year).

His coming-out party was the second week of the April evaluation period when he starred for Team Philly (the same AAU club that produced Taylor two years ago) as the squad made a run to the finals of the Philadelphia Jam Fest.

Blessed with natural athleticism, power and shot-blocking instincts, Watkins is really only just scratching the surface of his potential. While he has physical tools you just can’t teach, he’s also extremely raw on the offensive end and has lots to learn about the game on both ends of the floor. With the second half of his high school career and his best basketball still in front of him, he was a prospect who looked poised to ultimately attract a wide range of high-major recruitment.

Instead, Chambers and his staff grabbed Watkins off the board early, taking advantage of their deep roots and developing presence in the city they once called home.