Justin Hawkins’ lofty goal of graduating from UNLV in three years will be met this weekend

Balancing basketball and school hasn't always been easy, but Hawkins now looks forward to a relatively stress-free senior year.

“Jimmy Neutron” and “Boy Genius” aren’t the typical nicknames you’d associate with a Division-I basketball team’s top reserve and defensive stopper.

UNLV senior-to-be Justin Hawkins has gotten pretty used to both.

Since arriving on campus, there have been plenty of times in which the Los Angeles native has had to say no to his teammates. No to going out. No to hanging out with the group for an XBox or Playstation marathon.

This weekend, it all pays off, as the Rebels invaluable glue guy will graduate from UNLV.

In three years.

“It’s still kind of a surreal feeling, especially with finals still going on,” he said. “I think when it comes to Saturday, and I’m actually putting on the cap and gown for the first time, it’ll finally hit me.”

On Thursday afternoon, Hawkins will put the last of his final exams — employment law — to bed. Then comes a handful of courses over the summer that will officially top off his undergraduate degree in hotel administration — A field of study that UNLV is best known for.

He’s taken six classes per semester, with several more during the summer periods. Either two or three each semester are physical classes he’s had to show up for, while three or four others are either online or courses in which he has to administer to himself — The ultimate test of discipline and time management for any college student, let alone one whose basketball career is a full-time job, as well.

“I think that’s what actually helped push me,” he said. “You’ve got to teach yourself, do the physical work, and no one’s there to tell you when you have to do a test, do a paper, take a quiz online. You have to be willing to go out to get your education.”

Hawkins has risen above and beyond outside of the classroom, too, finding time last summer to pad his résumé by taking on an internship at the MGM Grand.

In the fall, he’ll begin working towards his master’s degree in public administration.

After next year, there’s a multitude of paths he can take.

There’s the option of continuing his studies and finishing off the master’s program. Hawkins said he’d like to explore the possibility of playing professional basketball. Or he could jump right into his post-hoops career, which he said will be in either gaming or hotel operations. That could be in Las Vegas, or at an international property, as the potential of working abroad has gradually become more and more appealing to him. Maybe in Europe, maybe in Singapore, maybe in Dubai.

Nothing is off of the table, and Hawkins has worked hard to make sure that’s the case.

When he first came to UNLV, Hawkins told his academic advisors that he planned to earn a degree within three years. But it took him a little while to realize just how much focus and sacrifice that would entail.

“It probably took me about a year, year and a half,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. If this is really what I wanted to do, I had to dedicate myself to it. I couldn’t mess around, say I wanted to do this but I really don’t. Freshman year, I was overwhelmed by everything I was doing.

“I had to balance my classes. I couldn’t take all the easy classes at one time, but at the same time couldn’t overwhelm myself every semester with all hard classes.”

During his freshman year, Hawkins admitted mid-way through the basketball season that the academic load and adjustment was taking its toll on him on the floor. He faded late in the season, and also struggled some to find a consistent balance between his two lives for the better part of his sophomore campaign.

As a junior, he seemed to figure it all out.

While motoring through even tougher courses, Hawkins averaged career bests in minutes (24.9 mpg), points (7.9 ppg), rebounds (2.9 rpg), assists (1.6 apg) and steals (1.5 spg) for a 26-win team.

And as expectations are as high as they’ve been in 20 years for the UNLV men’s basketball program entering the 2012-13 campaign, Hawkins should be able to give even more.

“I’ll have my undergraduate degree, and I’ll know for sure that I’m leaving with a degree in hand,” he said. “I can relax and have more fun both on and off the court, interact with my coaches and teammates more.”

Joining Hawkins in this weekend’s graduation ceremonies at the Thomas & Mack Center by the four members of last season’s senior class — Oscar Bellfield, Brice Massamba, Chace Stanback and Kendall Wallace — along with redshirt senior-to-be Quintrell Thomas.

Even with more time freed up to focus on his basketball life as a senior, Hawkins likely won’t see the ribbing from teammates subside. The nicknames will still be there, and he’ll hear something from them every time one of them sees the “READ” poster featuring Hawkins posted somewhere on campus.

That’s fine with him, though. He wears the role he’s worked hard to earn with pride.

“All of them are actually proud of me,” Hawkins said. “I told them what my goal was at the beginning, and they’re happy to see me follow through with it.”