UNLV basketball in early on ‘late bloomer’ Mwani Wilkinson

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Steve Marcus

Bishop Gorman’s Mwani Wilkinson (23) shoots during the Class 4A state high school basketball championship at the Orleans Arena Friday, March 1, 2019.

Sat, Apr 20, 2019 (2 a.m.)

There’s a term that Bishop Gorman swingman Mwani Wilkinson has been hearing a lot lately. Most basketball players his age don’t care for it, but Wilkinson is embracing it.

Late bloomer.

In most contexts it’s not a flattering label, but for Wilkinson, a 6-foot-6 wing in the class of 2020, it represents opportunity. The rising senior’s recruitment is just starting to heat up, and as far as he’s concerned, all suitors are welcome on the bandwagon no matter how late they show up.

After helping his Las Vegas Elite AAU team win its first game at the Pangos Easter Classic at Gorman on Thursday, Wilkinson said he’s been drawing more and more interest as the year goes on.

“A lot of people classify me as a late bloomer,” Wilkinson said. “I got two offers about three weeks ago, and I’m talking to a lot of coaches. So we’re getting there.”

Despite his impressive athleticism and ideal size for his position, Wilkinson flew under the radar for most of the 2018-19 season. Bishop Gorman cranks out 4- and 5-star prospects with regularity, and it took Wilkinson — an unranked prospect, according to all the recruiting sites — some time to adapt. He eventually carved out a role as a lock-down wing defender who could dominate on the glass and produce in transition, and by the end of the season he was a key contributor in the Gaels’ march to an eighth straight state championship.

“I’ve always had my athleticism, and when I started playing for Gorman, that’s when I started embracing defending,” Wilkinson said. “Now I’m starting to enjoy it. Defending, of course it takes size and athleticism, but most of it is heart. To never give up on a play. That's what it takes."

Wilkinson’s role figures to be much the same for the Las Vegas Elite as he tries to catch the attention of college coaches on the AAU circuit this summer. The squad is loaded with highly ranked prospects including 5-star Jaden Hardy of Coronado, 4-star Julian Strawther of Liberty and 4-star Noah Taitz, a teammate at Bishop Gorman.

Taitz witnessed Wilkinson’s emergence throughout the season and thinks he’ll continue to trend upward this summer.

“I’d say late bloomer is pretty accurate for him,” Taitz said. “He played a huge role in winning state for us. He came up huge in the playoffs, especially those last two games. I think he’s got a chance to really blow up over this AAU season coming up. If he just keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s going to blow up.”

Wilkinson scored 16 points in Bishop Gorman's win over Clark in the Desert Region championship game, then tallied 18 in the Gaels' win over Desert Pines in the Southern Nevada title game. A big percentage of his scoring came on high-flying dunks.

"He’s the type of player that’s dynamic and super athletic," Taitz said. "If you’re running the lane with him you can just throw it anywhere by the rim and he’s going to go get it. So he’s fun to play with, for sure."

If Wilkinson does become a hot name on the recruiting trail over the next four months, UNLV will have been ahead of the curve. Just one day after he was officially introduced as head coach of the Runnin’ Rebels, T.J. Otzelberger visited the Bishop Gorman gym to observe practice; the next day, Otzelberger offered Wilkinson a scholarship.

As of now, UNLV and Cal State Northridge are his only two offers.

“Coach Otzelberger came to our practice and then I got an offer,” Wilkinson said. “He’s been recruiting me hard. I like him. I’d love to stay home and be like a hometown hero.”

While most people associate Otzelberger with up-tempo, high-scoring offenses, Wilkinson has a different perspective. Though he isn’t known for launching 3-pointers, Wilkinson believes he would be a great fit as someone who can start — and finish — a fast break.

“Defense turns into offense,” Wilkinson said. “If we play defense, it turns into a lot of fast breaks and then you’ll see.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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