Wednesday, May 10, 2023 | 2 a.m.
If there’s a man of mystery in UNLV’s incoming recruiting class, it’s forward Rob Whaley.
Whaley’s journey to Division I basketball has been most unusual. He put up big numbers as a Class of 2021 prep star in Utah, but was not recruited out of high school due to weight issues. He landed at the College of Southern Idaho, and after dropping more than 60 pounds over the last two years, he turned in a fairly dominant sophomore campaign, averaging 14.4 points and 5.9 rebounds while leading CSI to a No. 1 national juco ranking.
“Most unusual” could also describe Whaley’s game. He’s both undersized for his frontcourt position (6-foot-5) and oversized at the same time (260 pounds). And his skill set is all over the board; as the offensive focal point for CSI, he posted up, took opponents off the dribble and generally did it all.
Now that Whaley is signed and on his way to Las Vegas, it’s time to figure out how it will translate to the DI level and what he brings to the UNLV program.
Whaley’s best ability is his scoring touch on the interior. It’s what drew the attention of UNLV coaches (as well as other Mountain West programs), and it shows up immediately on video.
Though he’s not the tallest player on the court, Whaley acted as a center in CSI’s offense. He uses his width and quickness to consistently establish good position on the low/mid block, and when he uses his body to shield defenders, it’s almost impossible for them to bother the entry pass.
Once he’s got the ball, Whaley quickly gets to work, using a variety of pivots, drop steps, power dribbles, reverse pivots, jump stops, pump fakes and good old-fashioned brute strength to knock defenders off balance. If Whaley gets into the lane with the ball in his hands, it’s pretty much an automatic two points or a foul:
In that video, which was compiled from two CSI games this year, Whaley got 13 paint touches. On 10 of those possessions he either scored or drew a foul (or both). The other three? One missed shot (taken with his off hand), one charge, and a missed dunk. It’s hard to get more efficient than that when it comes to back-to-the-basket play.
For the season, Whaley shot 52.2% overall from field while making 55.6% from 2-point range. The defenses Whaley will face next year will be longer and more equipped to challenge his shots around the basket, but with his knack for carving out space and creating enough daylight to get to his left-handed shot, I have to think he’ll continue to be a very strong finisher inside.
So Whaley is a big man, right? An old-school if undersized center? Not exactly. Southern Idaho gave him freedom to operate as a wing facing the basket as well, and Whaley flashed impressive off-the-dribble skills, often against smaller players.
He’s a solid ball-handler for a 260-pound man, and his first step is quicker than you’d think. Whaley got past defenders pretty reliably off the dribble — and when he didn’t, he used his strength to finish through them:
Whaley’s got more touch on his jumper than you’d expect, too. He only attempted 47 triples on the year, but he made a respectable 34.0%, which would have ranked him fourth among UNLV players last year:
In addition to his burly post game and capable jumper, Whaley turns into a freight train in transition. He’s agile and moves very fast once he shifts into gear, which leads to some entertaining coast-to-coast forays:
Naturally, juco opponents had to pay extra attention to Whaley, usually attaching multiple defenders to his hip. But he was more than willing to move the ball to take advantage of compromised defenses, and he is a very capable passer.
Whaley has a good feel not just for routine kick-out passes, but for finding random cutters:
Whaley averaged 2.0 assists per game, and CSI got some easy baskets by playing through him as an offensive hub.
As much as Whaley’s size can be an asset, it’s clear he still has work to do in order to get into shape. In the games I watched, he tired very quickly. Anytime the game flowed for even a handful of possessions without a whistle or stoppage, Whaley would struggle to keep up with the pace of play. That resulted in too many offensive possessions where he was the last player to join the action, and it affected his defense and rebounding.
Whaley will have to remain committed to conditioning when he arrives at UNLV. The game is faster and the action more intense at the Division I level, and UNLV can’t afford to play short-handed on even a single possession.
Defensively, Whaley was a bit of a tweener at CSI. Opponents rarely tested him inside, instead opting to attack him off the dribble.
Whaley can move his feet and cut off driving angles; he’s not out of place when switched onto smaller, quicker players. When he’s tired, though, he gets rooted to the ground and allows some easy baskets:
Whaley averaged 5.9 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game, and his total could have been higher if he were in better shape. He’s naturally strong and quick off the floor, and he’s conscientious about boxing out, so he grabbed his share of boards last year. He was especially effective tracking offensive rebounds and scoring on putbacks, which is a great skill to have.
Rebounding is tiring, however, and Whaley is not as relentless as he could be:
So, what does UNLV have in Whaley? Is he a small-ball center? A stretch-4? A power wing? Some combination of all of the above?
Offensively, his killer post game should translate to the next level, with the shooting, passing and ball-handling skills serving as a bonus. I can see him playing next to a bigger center most of the time, then shifting to the 5 in certain small lineups.
The caveat is fitness. Whaley has shown tremendous drive in getting down to 260 pounds, but he’s got to continue to refine his body if he wants to hold up on defense and on the glass as a Division-I player. He flat-out took off plays at CSI, and that’s not going to work for a UNLV team that is trying to claw its way into the NCAA Tournament in 2023-24.
Whaley has two years of eligibility remaining, and his unique physical profile and skill set make him a very intriguing addition. From UNLV’s perspective, that’s a player worth taking a flyer on. And if Whaley gets into peak shape and reaches his potential, he could give the Scarlet and Gray a serious matchup problem.
Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.