LEXINGTON, Ky. – Dominique Hawkins wanted to play more in his first three seasons at Kentucky. He’s determined to play more this season as a senior. But ask the Richmond, Ky., native what it’s meant to be a Wildcat and he’ll answer with what might be the world’s widest grin.
“Oh, it means a lot. Definitely God blessed us,” Hawkins said, referring to himself and roommate Derek Willis, a fellow homegrown senior. “Not many local Kentucky guys are playing for Coach Cal teams. To be able to play for one of his teams is just insane, and they just love us.”
They are the fans, who’ve always held a soft spot in their hearts for bluegrass boys wearing the blue and white. Those have been few and far between since coach John Calipari came to town in 2009 and started scooping up elite recruits from all across the country.
In fact, Hawkins and Willis are the only in-state players Calipari actively has recruited. Darius Miller already was here when he arrived and, notably, is the most productive Kentucky native (so far) of the Calipari era. He scored more than 1,200 career points and helped deliver the program’s eighth national title in 2012, alongside Calipari’s one-and-done stars Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
While Hawkins always has been a role player, a spark plug off the bench, he was nearly a pivotal piece of another championship team in 2014. Calipari asked him to shut down the opponent’s best scorer in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four – and he did – but the Wildcats lost in the national title game against Connecticut.
“(Calipari) gets the best freshmen in the country, and he’s even going around the world pretty much now,” Hawkins said. “Not being McDonald’s All-Americans, me and Derek, we’ve always taken pride in taking on the challenge. And now that it’s our senior year, hopefully we can get a lot of playing time and have a big role on the team.”
MEET THE 2016-17 WILDCATS
- Faster than Wall? Freshman Fox just might be.
- Calipari asked Briscoe to lead and ‘that inspires me.’
- UK freshman sent early message: Don’t jump with Monk.
- 7-footer Humphries has slimmed down, stepped up.
- Willis aims to put summer arrest, last year’s D behind him.
Hawkins has scored 115 points, grabbed 61 rebounds, dished 39 assists and swiped 17 steals so far in his Wildcats career. The former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, who had to put on a dazzling show during the state playoffs at Rupp Arena to earn a late scholarship offer from Calipari, wants more.
He was poised for more as a junior. A preseason wrist injury and midseason ankle injury – after he scored 13 points in a win against rival Louisville – derailed him.
“He’s been unlucky with some injuries when he had his chance,” Calipari said. “So let’s hope he stays healthy.”
Hawkins has played with 11 NBA draft picks already, and there are more on the roster this season. Per usual, Calipari signed another elite class, including five 5-star freshmen. Three are projected top-20 picks, including guards De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. The crowded backcourt also includes sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, another NBA hopeful, team leader and lock for the starting lineup.
“As a senior, Dom should be mentally ahead of these guys,” Calipari said. “Their basketball skill, some of these guys, may be a little bit better than him, but mentally, physically? No, no. They shouldn’t be.”
There is no freakier athlete on Kentucky’s talented roster than Hawkins, who at 6 feet, 190 pounds can bench-press 185 pounds 16 times and posted a team-high 44 ½-inch vertical leap during the Wildcats’ on-campus combine for pro scouts during the weekend.
He spent the summer working on his offense, trying to improve on an anemic career 3-point percentage (22.7). To be fair, it has increased every season he’s been at Kentucky. He knows it must be even better to earn more time. But Hawkins always will have some role based on defense alone.
Poll the Wildcats on who they’d choose with the game on the line, needing one stop, and his name comes up most frequently.
“He’s always been able to guard whoever he’s been given,” sophomore center Isaac Humphries said. “And he’s like a real vet. He’s like a senior. He’s not like a Kentucky vet. He’s just had so much experience, and he’s had to guard some pretty crazy players over the years.”
That offense apparently is coming along, too.
“He’s been killing it,” Humphries said. “He’s been one that’s really stood out for me. He’s making everything. He does kind of get forgotten, but I don’t think this year he’ll be forgotten at all.”
Certainly not if he and Willis, the Kentucky kids, manage to help hang a new banner at Rupp. There’s an extra-special place in the fans’ hearts for homegrown heroes who do that. Hawkins was so close in 2014, then saw an undefeated season thwarted in the 2015 Final Four.
Ask him to imagine finally finishing the job and here comes that grin again, the one that seems wider even than his face.
“A national championship is everything to me,” Hawkins said. “It would be a fairytale ending for me, to be able to have all my friends and family around me at the end and just be able to say I was able to bring Nine back home.”