On this week’s edition of the Mental Dimes NCAAM Podcast, Trevor Heilman and Shea Irish were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Mwani Wilkinson of LSU. The 6’5” wing was an ESPN Top 100 recruit in the class of 2020 coming out of Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, where he helped the Gaels win their 9th consecutive Nevada State Championship to tie a National Record first set by St. Anthony High School in New Jersey between the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Mwani was a Nevada 1st Team All-State selection his senior year and chose LSU over a top 5 list that included Texas Tech, USC, Vanderbilt, and UNLV along with the Tigers. Mwani is well on his way to becoming an elite ‘3 and D’ type of player in the SEC, as he shot over 40% from deep last season and is rising to a level of being one of the top lockdown defenders in the country. He started 30 games last season for a Tigers team that was ranked as high as #12 in the country at one point on their way to earning a 6 seed to the NCAA Tournament. We were able to interview Mwani thanks to a newly found connection in networking with Players Inc, an up and coming NIL company based out of Baton Rouge, LA that he is involved with. The company has huge plans on the horizon as they are representing players from all over the South and are trying to expand to every part of the country. Give them a follow on instagram (@playersinc_) and check out the big time merchandise they are creating.
Question and Answer with Mwani Wilkinson:
Trevor: Your high school team (Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas) was just ridiculous. They won 9 consecutive State Titles in Nevada. How were you able to develop into the player that you’ve become today considering you guys were obviously so much better than everybody else?
Mwani: I would say being on that team was a blessing for me because not only did it teach me how to play winning basketball but it taught me how to get in where I fit in. One thing for college basketball players that’s hard for some guys is to get in where they fit in and accept that role but that’s something that should be a basic when you’re taught basketball because it’s a team sport. Some stuff just isn’t going to be all about you, some stuff is not going to be done your way. So for me to be able to understand that at a young age and to be able to tap into that while trying to keep getting better, that’s one of the biggest things I took away from being at that program.
Shea: Being an ESPN Top 100 recruit, and especially as Trevor mentioned on such a prestigious, nationally renowned high school basketball program; what was the recruiting process like for you overall? Obviously you picked LSU but I’m sure you had a laundry list of schools that you could’ve gone to.
Mwani: I was a late bloomer so my recruiting didn’t really start until the end of my junior year and it started off a little slow. Once I got to the summer after my junior year playing my 17u season at Peach Jam in the EYBL, and also in between there was a tournament called Section 7 where you play with your HS team. I did well in both of those events and it really pushed up my recruitment. I took visits to 4 schools- an unofficial and an official to UNLV, an official visit to USC, one to Vanderbilt, and then LSU. I didn’t visit Texas Tech but those were my top 5 schools. I kinda knew I was going to end up coming to LSU because a lot of my family is from Louisiana.
Shea: Let’s shift into your college career now with LSU. There has been a ton of overhaul and roster change within the program. Obviously Will Wade is out right before the tournament, Coach Matt McMahon is hired after the season. The roster is completely different- only you, Justice Williams, and Adam Miller are returning. What’s the feeling around the program during this offseason as you guys look to build upon the new team and move into the 2022-23 season?
Mwani: Just work. A Lot of work and doing things the right way. Coach McMahon’s thing is that you build the best relationships with people through working with them so that’s how we’re gelling together. 5-6 days a week we’re in the gym with each other. Coach McMahon is a simple dude and I can see in his teachings how it’s worked and he’s won so many games.
Trevor: Coach Will Wade is the guy who gave you the offer to come to LSU. How close were you to him and did you guys see the firing coming- like was that on anyone’s radar or did it shock everybody?
Mwani: So that happened right after the SEC Tournament. We flew in from Tampa and got back to Baton Rouge, drove from the airport and got off the bus to head back to our rooms. Whenever we got back from an away trip, Coach Wade would come to the back of the bus to talk to us. All he said that night was get your rest and I’ll see y’all at this restaurant for Selection Sunday. Right afterwards we all got a text to come to the locker room for a meeting, Coach Wade wasn’t there and we got the news. Nobody was expecting it at all.
Shea: After the season you enter the transfer portal, and rightfully so. Coach Wade was gone and most of your teammates had already entered themselves. When Coach McMahon was hired and came to Baton Rouge, did he put a vision in your head or say something that got you to withdraw from the portal and stay at LSU?
Mwani: One thing that really stood out to me was the first day he flew out here and landed, he called me that same night at 1 in the morning. That was the first instance that I saw I might be of importance to him and he kept applying pressure throughout that whole recruiting process. It wasn’t really anything he told me but more what I saw from him.
Trevor: Let’s switch gears. You’re a very unique type of player in the basketball world today. Fans today are looking for the Steph Curry stats and the Kyrie Irving instagram highlights but that’s not your game. Like you said earlier “it’s get in where you fit in”. In an era where everyone is focused on shooting, you developed the opposite mentality as a lockdown defender and a really good role player on the team, when did that mindset start?
Mwani: It’s just one of those things that are in me. Both of my older brothers played college football on the defensive side of the ball. Defense is just something that’s in my family blood, and my dad always preached that defense wins championships. Ever since I started playing high school basketball I really tuned into the defensive side of the ball. It’s also one of the easiest ways to learn to score the ball, by turning your defense into offense.
Shea: Going off of that, first off I want to say I really respect your game and the mindset you have. You’re not worried about how many shots you’re going to get, you’re more worried about providing energy and intensity on the defensive end. That’s something every team needs to elevate from a good team to a great one. Being a defensive presence in one of the best conferences in the country (SEC) with perimeter players like Jahvon Quinerly, Scottie Pippen Jr., J.D. Notae, Kennedy Chandler, the list goes on. Who was the one guy last season that caught your eye or was the toughest cover?
Mwani: Daeshun Ruffin from Ole Miss. He might be the only one I had real trouble guarding. You don’t know what to do- like do you wanna give him space so he can shoot it or play up on him, but then he’ll go right by you. When we played them he was hitting his shots too, so yeah Daeshun Ruffin definitely.
Shea: Getting to your own teammates now- were you familiar with any of the Murray State guys (K.J. Williams, Juice Hill, Trae Hannibal) that have transferred into LSU before they arrived?
Mwani: I was a little familiar with Juice. He was at Arkansas before he went to Murray State. I was familiar with Trae Hannibal too because I played against him my freshman season when he was at South Carolina. As for K.J. I wasn’t too familiar with him but I heard alot about him as he went through the NBA Draft process.
Trevor: Couple more questions and we’ll get you out of here. Being such a defensive presence, if you could go to the NBA right now and guard anybody who would it be that you’d like to shut down?
Mwani: I’ve never really thought about that. The only thing I have thought about when I get to the NBA is getting the opportunity to jump with LeBron, because if I do get the chance I will. When I watch him dunk, he’s jumping high but I can get up there too, I really believe so.
Trevor: Is there a specific player growing up that you modeled your game after- or is there one NBA guy that you would say you were like or maybe you’re compared to?
Mwani: I get Jimmy Butler a lot. Being that he plays through the post and when I was in high school that was a lot of what I was doing. As I develop my game more and more in college, I’ve heard Jaylen Brown from my teammates. But my favorite player is Paul George, I love him.
Shea: We’ve seen many of your games on TV but never personally been to the Pete Maravich Center. The atmosphere looks extremely electric every night. Is there one game in your two seasons at LSU so far that stood out as the rowdiest crowd you’ve played in front of?
Mwani: It was two games back to back. We played Kentucky at home and then Tennessee- my goodness it was so loud in there. That crowd noise helps the home team because in the game of basketball a big thing is communication and playing in a place that loud makes it hard to communicate being the opposing team. It gives us an advantage there for sure. For me personally though, sometimes I feel like certain away games I enjoy more than playing at home. Arkansas is a fun place to play.