basketball

Savannah Wilkinson aiming to lead GB’s next generation

Savannah Wilkinson has long since been heralded as a generational talent and the rising star hopes to be a central part of GB’s future.

The 21-year-old continues to hone her skills at Florida State having showcased herself as a teenager in the WBBL as well as excelling on the international stage at various age groups.

Wilkinson has already been involved with the GB Senior team and wants to play a bigger role in the years to come, drawing inspiration from the current squad.

“Being able to watch the current team be so successful has been so inspiring for my generation,” she told Hoopsfix. “We have always spoken about being the next Senior team.

“We definitely have the opportunity to lead the team going forward.”

Breaking in

Wilkinson had her first taste of action as part of the Senior programme with a maiden call-up coming during the Women’s EuroBasket 2017 qualifiers.

After not seeing court-time in the first window, the 1998-born starlet earned her first minutes in the city of Lucca with five points in eight minutes of a 71-52 defeat against Italy in November, 2016.

Four days later and Wilkinson was able to celebrate a first victory with the GB Senior side; contributing a near double-double of nine points and 10 rebounds in a dominant 55-97 success away in Albania.

“Nervous, excited, ready – just so many different emotions,” she recalls of her debut. “Playing with GB on my chest is always a huge honour and it was a dream come true, especially playing with Olympians next to me.

“Going to Italy and being able to play and score and contribute for the team was a super incredible feeling.”

The introduction of Chema Buceta as head coach following his time with the Under-20s side led to the injection of youth.

Wilkinson was joined by the likes of Kyla Nelson, Eleanor Jones and Gabby Nikitinaite as they were able to rub shoulders alongside some of GB’s greats with their wealth of experience.

“It was intimidating for the first couple of training sessions,” she admits. “Then, I had to stop thinking of them as role-models.

“Guarding Jo Leedham – one of my idols and the hardest player I’ve ever guarded. She is so tough.

“I was often on the defensive side in practice and I remember one time we finished and I felt like I’d had a bad day and not really helped the team.

“Jo came over and asked why I was feeling down. After I explained, she said ‘there’s a reason Chema is making you guard me – you’re making it difficult and helping me get better’.

“That meant a lot to me and was a really cool moment so I went straight to call my mum after.”

The new international calendar with in-season windows have perhaps limited Wilkinson’s opportunities since but she was back in the fold last summer as part of the preparations for Women’s EuroBasket 2019.

A spot on the final 12-player roster may have eluded her, but Wilkinson continues to push for her chance to become a regular.

“It was a tough experience last year as I had made the team before. I had to forget what happened previously and try to prove myself again.

“Chema re-iterated to me about helping the team regardless and he hones in on everyone being together.

“He’s already done great things for the GB women and I hope he stays involved for a long time.

“The girls always give great advice also and it was an incredible experience.”

Family ties

The journey began
 at the age of eight for Wilkinson, following the path of her older brother in picking up a basketball. At Haringey Angels, the American dream was created having seen her role-models earn scholarships at US colleges.

“Once I had a grasp of that, I knew what I wanted to do,” she said.

“My brother was a big inspiration and also Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott was a huge inspiration for me.

“Her motivation and determination was like I’d never seen. Being able to shoot, drive to the basket and play defence and show how hard you have to work.”

The sport continued to run in the family. Parris Wilkinson is a year older than Savannah and the pair would unite on the court, representing their country at Under-16 and Under-18 level as well as for Barking Abbey at senior level.

“It was a really good experience being on the same team,” said Savannah. “We are both very competitive, especially if we were on different teams in practice. We know each other inside out.

“She doesn’t play as much now, but still helps out when I’m home: rebounding, having workouts. When you have sporting siblings, you know what it takes.”

The move to Barking Abbey came early for Wilkinson; venturing in Year 9 as opposed to the more traditional route at the start of Sixth Form with the opportunity to take engineering as a GCSE one of the pulling factors.

The chance to make as much use as possible from the fountain of knowledge at her disposal was another with Wilkinson.

“The academy was really cool and I wanted to get all the knowledge I could from Mark Clark, Lloyd Gardner and Rikki [Broadmore].

“Playing in Division 1 and then the WBBL was great. Coming up against adults, I knew quickly I needed to get into the weight room,” she laughs.

“Competing against the likes of Julie Page, all the Sheffield girls and the Americans that came over was a great experience.

“I think the league is awesome – it’s expanding with new teams and I can’t wait to watch when it’s back.”

Making waves

The inaugural season of the WBBL brought instant success for Wilkinson, despite only turning 16 years of age a month into the campaign. Averages of 9.1 points and 8.6 rebounds per game led to her being crowned the runaway winner of the league’s Young Player of the Year award.

“It was an incredible first year in the WBBL and extra special getting that accolade,” she said.

“I owe so much to Mark Clark and being recognised by the other coaches was a nice feeling.

“I was the young buck [at BA] but had the green light to score and do my thing.

“Diana [Naydenova-Goryanova] and Tereza [Brantlova] were incredible with their support. We had a nice mix of older players and younger ones.”

Pressure mounts with success. But Wilkinson did not let it faze her. In the midst of showcasing her skills domestically, international recognition came naturally, too.

Wilkinson helped England’s Under-16s to a silver medal and promotion to Division A in 2014 – making the All-Tournament team alongside the MVP – and recent No.2 pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft – Satou Sabally.

Another All-Tournament team honour followed in 2018 with the GB Under-20s as the Londoner led the way as the second leading scorer with 20.9 points per game in Oradea, Romania.

“Those are great memories,” she recalls. “Even when we were not successful, they were still fun experiences.

“Basketball in England is so different to many places. You recognise the different ways and styles – this is how the Spanish do things, this is how the French play and that Serbians are robots because they don’t make mistakes,” she adds in jest.

Versatility

There are different facets to her game that make Wilkinson a matchup nightmare for the opposition, whilst being able to defend multiple positions.

At different junctures of her basketball journey, the need to adapt has been paramount and the willingness to take on various roles has helped expand her abilities.

“I feel like I’m extremely versatile and playing the 3/4 is when I’m most comfortable,” she explains.

“At the 3, I can use my post game where I’m stronger than some of the smaller guards, then at the 4, I use my speed and driving ability against slower defenders.

“My jump shot is my bread and butter, finishing around the rim and getting stops on defence. That’s what I pride myself on because at the end of the day, scoring isn’t that important if you can’t stop the other team.”

It was her all-round game that fast attracted attention from the States. Offers came flooding in, rapport established with potential coaches, but there could only be one and it was Florida State.

“It was insane to me,” she said of the process. I remember being in Madrid [with BA] and emails just kept coming through. It was crazy having my name recognised from what I’d shown in London.

“I spoke to a lot of schools and there is a sense of letting people down, but I couldn’t help falling in love with Florida State.”

Wilkinson averaged 9.1 minutes per game in 22 appearances during her freshman year before spending the 2018-19 season transitioning into a new role for the Seminoles, predominantly as a post defender.

“I didn’t play much as a freshman and wasn’t an offensive threat as a sophomore,” she explained.

“But I’ve been working on myself and improving all the time. At the Under-20s [with GB] I was able to show how much I’ve been getting better because of having extremely high-level coaching.”

Waiting game

Wilkinson currently remains at her apartment in Tallahassee, Florida, with the college town having become vacant during the coronavirus pandemic as students – team-mates included – have returned home.

“I’m definitely missing home,” she says. “But just missing people in general, also, as not many people are here now.

“I FaceTime my mum every day so I’m very thankful for technology.

“I’m always very focussed on my studies but this has allowed me to get the grades I want without pulling myself in two different directions.”

The break without basketball has become an extended one for Wilkinson having missed the majority of her junior year through injury.

It remains to be seen whether Wilkinson will have one or two years remaining with an option of redshirting her junior year. However, whenever the time comes to continue her college career, the challenge of taking on more responsibility will be one she relishes.

“With a stress fracture in my foot, it was difficult not seeing it. Some moments I felt fine and like I was making progress but then it would be two steps forward and 10 back.

“My coaches have been really supportive and just want me to get fully healthy for next year.

“There is also a mutual expectation of stepping into leadership and it’s something I want to show I can do.

“I always want to expand my game offensively. I’ve been more defensive focussed, but want to get that offensive flair I had back home.”

In uncertain times, it can be dangerous to look too far ahead even with a bright future lying in wait. And, it is the cautious approach that Wilkinson takes.

“I have thought about where I want to play, but I try not to look too far ahead,” she concludes.

“Pressure can get too much sometimes but then pressure makes diamonds. My focus is on my team right now and I want to prove myself in America.

“I’ll take each year as it comes then becoming a professional will be around the corner.”

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