Two weeks ago, UNLV junior guard Justin Hawkins was facing a sink-or-swim scenario for the first time in his collegiate career.
After two seasons as a defensive specialist off of the bench for the Rebels, the 6-foot-3 Los Angeles native needed to find some balance in his game. If he didn’t in first-year coach Dave Rice’s up-tempo system, his spot in the rotation might have been at risk after not too long.
Three games into the 2011-12 campaign, he’s doing just fine.
The latest outburst in Hawkins’ sensational start came in Thursday’s 95-70 trouncing of Canisius at the Thomas & Mack Center. Coming off the bench, he played a game-high 28 minutes and finished with 14 points, five steals and four assists.
Through three games, he’s averaging 17.3 points per outing and has been a terror on both ends of the floor. What’s more important than the numbers, though, is the visible confidence and swagger radiating from him when he’s steps on the floor. It’s an attitude he didn’t have in his first two years at UNLV, and it’s leading to more creative playmaking from him on the offensive end than he’s ever displayed before.
“I’m always smiling on the court, just laughing and having a good time. This is what basketball is supposed to be about,” he said. “We’re having fun. Hopefully it just stays like this the rest of the season.”
Granted, each performance won’t look as easy as Thursday’s did. Especially in about a week, when a game against Southern Cal to open the Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena opens a brutal stretch of nonconference play that includes a possible meeting with No. 1 North Carolina, along with games against Cal, UTEP, Wisconsin, Wichita State, UC Santa Barbara and Illinois over a four-week period.
But Thursday night, UNLV (3-0) played its best ball yet under Rice. The Rebels were 33-for-54 from the floor and 11-for-20 from 3-point range. They recorded 28 assists on those 33 made baskets.
Mike Moser, continuing an impressive start of his own, led the way with 19 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals. Oscar Bellfield had 14 points and 10 assists, while Chace Stanback and Carlos Lopez each scored 10. Anthony Marshall had seven points and seven assists.
It’s a toss-up between Moser’s torrid start and Hawkins’ unexpected play as far as which is causing the most commotion so far at the Thomas & Mack.
Hawkins averaged five points and just four shot attempts per game as a sophomore, and he was looked upon to provide defensive clout instead of offensive firepower. But through three games this season, he’s 18-for-32 from the floor (56 percent) and 7-for-15 from long range (47 percent). Entering this season, he was a career 25 percent 3-point shooter. What’s helped bring that aspect of his game up to snuff is playing in a more free-flowing offense, where he can shoot on the fly without thinking too much about it.
“(I’m confident) because I’m making baskets this year,” he said. “Defense has always been there for me, but it’s just an added bonus now that I’m making baskets. Coming into the season, losing Tre (Willis) and Derrick (Jasper), we were going to need that offense off of the bench. Me being more versatile and dynamic than some of the other players on our team, I knew I had to just come in and give it my all.”
The breakout process began in the Rebels’ season-opening victory over Grand Canyon last week, when UNLV had just seven scholarship players available, and needed more than the usual from Hawkins.
“I would say (there was) doubt, but I was a little reserved with games coming up,” he said. “Then Anthony and Chace were out for the first game (because of suspensions), they came to me before and said, ‘We need you to step up.'”
In the second half of the opener, as he was finishing off a career-high 25-point performance, Hawkins finally had the look of a serious threat from the wing, taking the ball at Grand Canyon’s interior defense consistently off of the dribble. He’s looked like the same player ever since, and shows no signs of letting up.
In turn, he appears to have secured his spot within Rice’s rotation. He averaged 18.8 minutes a game as a sophomore, but is up to 26.7 minutes this season.
It will make for an interesting balancing act on Rice’s part come Dec. 17, when speedy and explosive Marquette transfer Reggie Smith becomes eligible. Coming into the season, it was assumed that Smith would provide the shot of adrenaline off the bench for UNLV’s backcourt this year. Instead, Hawkins has provided it, giving Rice even more flexibility with his roster.
That’s assuming that Hawkins can keep it up. He got a brief reminder Thursday of how quickly things can change.
“There was a good three or four minutes today when I wasn’t really in attack mode, and I got those two or three turnovers back-to-back-to-back,” he said. “Coach (Rice) told me I need to get back into attack mode, because when I’m not, that’s when I start getting sloppy and have mental lapses on both ends.”
He’ll get another chance to prove himself Sunday, when UNLV hosts Morgan State—led by former Cal coach Todd Bozeman—at the Thomas & Mack at 7 p.m.