The saying goes that hard work beats talent, when talent doesn’t work hard and for UNLV Senior guard, Justin Hawkins, that couldn’t be more on point. Hawkins grew up in Los Angeles where he attended Taft High School and played AAU basketball for the Compton Magic. While Hawkins wasn’t a highly recruited player out of high school, not being ranked in the top 150 in the class where John Wall was the top prospect according to Rivals.com, he received an offer from the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels. UNLV was a school known for its dominant stint in the 90’s but more recently struggling to make it back in the eyes of the national audience, and right before the start of his senior season at Taft, Hawkins committed to the uprising squad.
“[UNLV] was close to home and they had the degree program I wanted to get in to,” Hawkins said. “The playing style was great and I wanted to hopefully help bring the tradition of UNLV basketball back to where it once was.”
In modern times, when college athletes are discussed, the stereotype of “jock” is often slapped on them and many are thought of as muscle heads who are well gifted in what they do while also receiving special treatment by professors. It’s a sad reality we often see where players are given special privilege in the classroom due to who they are and what they bring to the program. It’s a problem that has been ongoing for decades now and is in no sight of being brought to a halt. While this stereotype exists in institutions around the nation, Hawkins does not fall under that category. Graduating from high school in 2009, he came to Las Vegas not solely to play basketball, but to excel in the classroom as well by graduating early and the motivation was paramount:
“In high school I had a couple of teachers who told me I wouldn’t even graduate because I didn’t have the tools to do it,” Hawkins said. “Proving everyone wrong and having my support system having my back was really amazing. I wanted my grandmother to see me graduate, but she didn’t even get to see me play my first basketball game because she passed away and I promised her I was going to graduate as fast as I could.”
Hawkins took six classes per semester in order to obtain his bachelors degree in hotel administration, one of UNLV signature programs, in three years instead of the standard four. Along with six classes per semester, he took several more during the summer break, with two or three being classes he has had to physically attend and others being online courses. Not to mention, keeping basketball a top priority, as well. Where Hawkins has had to turn down countless nights of hanging out with friends, going to the movies, or just playing video games, he has made up for it by earning the coveted degree no one could take away from him. As his career advanced in the classroom and the courses got harder, Hawkins stepped up to the challenge by stepping his game up on the court, too. As a freshman, he had a mere 421 total minutes; 621 as a sophomore and 879 minutes this past year as a junior and where he continued to earn minutes on the court, he gained confidence in his game by taking more shots on every opportunity he was given. Shooting a career-low 8-29 (28%) on three pointers as a freshman, he continued to work on his shooting day in and day out and upped his three-point shot count to 124 this past season, making 33% of them and not being afraid to take the looks he was handed at any given moment. His elevation in offensive production is another product of Hawkins’ hard work and an advantage to having Coach Rice around, already.
“Being in the gym everyday getting tons and tons of shots up and getting more confident in what I was doing and last year with Coach Rice, he knew what I was capable of doing. He said just go out there and have fun and just play basketball.”
Hawkins may not be the poster boy of the program or one many of you may recognize for that matter, but he is a force to be reckoned with and a big part of why UNLV will be successful this upcoming season and why they have been successful already. Last season, the Rebels managed to go undefeated at home for the first time since their championship season in 1990 and a part of that was Hawkins being a defensive juggernaut and shutting down opponents on the perimeter and in one particular case, managing to steal the ball in the waning seconds of the game at home against bitter foe, San Diego State, maintaining the win and preserving the undefeated season. Along with being a defensive nightmare for opponents, Hawkins’ ability to put a dagger into teams’ hearts is second to none in college basketball. When the Rebels would find themselves in a bind, the UNLV glue man has been quick to reassure a lead with a big time three and celebrates emphatically by yelling to the heavens and pounding his chest on the way back on defense. His uncanny ability to show emotion is a diamond in the rough in modern day basketball where a poker face is the new norm and showing emotion is considered “unprofessional” in most cases. But Justin doesn’t care about what the critics have to say about emotion on the court, he loves it.
“When I show emotion it’s only at certain times during the game, not during the entire game because I have to keep my composure,” Hawkins said. “But me just being the energy guy on the team uplifts everyone else on the team during the game and everyone in the stands and you can feel the energy throughout the whole stadium. I like it. Me off the court, I never really show emotion so I feel like I’m that much more comfortable on the court, in my natural setting and I can be who I want to be.”
Coming off of a season with career bests in minutes (24.9 mpg), points (7.9 ppg), rebounds (2.9 rpg), assists (1.6 apg) and steals (1.5 spg) Hawkins was still snubbed for 6th man of the year and defensive player of the year, his area of expertise, in the Mountain West. But while that set a fire off under Hawkins, he still managed to not let it get to him, letting his team player mentality take over:
“It is what it is; last year’s in the past,” Hawkins said. “Those were my goals for last year and I have new goals for this year. I’m just going to play each game like it’s my last because it definitely could be. If I win any post-season awards then hey, I win post-season awards. But the most important thing is the team. Hopefully we can win ball games, win championships and go as far as we can in the tournament.”
Coming into the 2011-2012 season, there were higher hopes for the Rebels than they had seen in a long time. The Dave Rice era had begun and the squad was looking sharp, defeating the then ranked #1 North Carolina Tar Heels over Thanksgiving Weekend. But last season only turned out to be a teaser of what to expect for years to come; while the team wasn’t great, there were signs of a completely new program in the midst and one die-hard Rebel fans had been longing for, for 20 years. With Rice being a player under legendary head coach, Jerry Tarkanian, in his tenure as the Rebels coach, and a part of the 1990 National Championship team, as well, he began to instill the classic run and gun style of play that gave UNLV their “Runnin’ Rebels” nickname to begin with. With a fifth of the teams possessions coming in transition last season and the most frequent of plays ending in spot up jumpers, it was a new set-up compared to the half-court set Rebel fans were use to in the Kruger days not too long ago.
UNLV may have lost their round of 64 game last season to a jaunty Colorado team, but the amount of positives to take away from that season are exponential from every stand point, but most of all, they identified their weaknesses:
“We didn’t go out there and take care of business. We started the game slow and thought we were going to be able to come back and win, but we fell short,” Hawkins said. “We know we need to start off the games better. Teams that we know can’t play with us, just get it over with early and don’t let them hang around with us and give them confidence, also, finishing games better. Even though we have a big lead we can’t allow them to come back and either tie the game or even beat us, just little things we have to work on throughout the year. Maturity is huge. A lot of guys weren’t in big time games for college athletes, so just the maturity factor, leadership, making the right plays down the line, and just little things that add up throughout the year from preseason going into the season.”
With so few of guys seeing primetime action last season, the fresh faces to the program will give an entirely new perspective to the Rebels this year; being the highest recruited class UNLV has ever seen in Anthony Bennett (No. 1 Power Forward, No. 7 overall 2012), Katin Reinhardt (No. 8 Shooting Guard, No. 38 overall 2012), Savon Goodman (No. 18 Power Forward, No. 72 overall 2012) and local boy Demetris Morant (No. 24 Center, No.144 overall 2012) they have collectively been in more big time games as high-schoolers than previous UNLV players. Having a high caliper class not only brings a substantial amount to the table skill wise, but they’re managing to teach the seasoned vets a thing or two as well:
“I see how hard they work, “Hawkins said. “For them to be so highly talented coming in, everyone might think ‘oh it’s just hype and rankings that don’t mean anything, but when you actually see them on a daily basis and how they get in the gym and get shots up and do the extra little things in the weight room and get to class on time. It shows how much they’re really dedicated to what they want to do in life, and that’s basketball.”
A big concern when facing a squad with a plethora of talent like Rice has this season is how to maintain the egos on the team. Is it possible to have too much talent to the point where it can’t be controlled? That may sound like a ludacris assumption, but to an extent there can be a haunting of talent where coaches are scrambling to make proper rotations, struggling to configure proper subbing situations and overall just figuring out who to start. In UNLV’s case this year, that won’t be an issue with the talent Rice has. These players maintain team-first mentalities and understand what it takes to win, even if it means seeing less minutes for a few games here and there. The Rebels have established themselves more so as a family than a team this year and the seniors won’t be quick to let egos get in the way of their goals:
“We have to teach them to not let ego’s get involved. If you feel like someone’s developing an ego, bring it to their attention right away, don’t let anything boil over to the next day because that’s how things get bigger and bigger. I don’t want to be a dictator; I want to feel like we can have a real, meaningful conversation. This year we’ve come together a lot more. There aren’t any groups of friends on the team, there are no secrets, or ulterior motives everyone plays for each other and everyone’s hanging out with each other. We’re really a big family on and off the court.”
Of course, this is incredibly refreshing for UNLV fans to hear. There’s nothing more dangerous than a team that comes together as a family and clicks on all cylinders. It’s what we see in championship teams year in and year out and it’s what makes the teams we remember, worth remembering. This upcoming season the expectations are higher than ever, the stakes are larger and the talent level is remarkable. Even though UNLV is 0-4 in their last four tournament games, Hawkins has a message for all of the Rebellion out there and anyone who may be watching this upcoming season:
“Be ready for anything. Who knows that crazy things might happen? A 30-0 run. Two back-to-back oops to Mike Moser of Anthony Bennett. Who really knows what might happen? Undefeated season, national championship, just be ready for anything…”
Basketball fans, whoever you may cheer for, this Rebel team is something to be excited about and they are a force to be reckoned with this upcoming season. Be ready for the unthinkable. Be ready for the unbelievable, and be ready for highlights. Because when it’s all said and done and time for lights, camera, action, the stage will be bright, the Mack will be packed and the Rebel chants will be loud. So be ready for Hawkins and company to make a deep run into the tournament this year, because the Rebels are back, and there’s no sign of them going away anytime soon.
As for Justin himself, he turns 22 today, is a student athlete, a college graduate and has an incredible support system from his girlfriend, mom, brother and the rest of his family as he pursues his dream to play ball at the next level. Not bad at all for a kid whose high school teachers told him he wouldn’t even graduate…
Note: Today (10/10/2012) is Justin’s 22nd birthday. So go wish him a happy birthday via twitter @Hawk_31
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