LEXINGTON, Ky. – Final Four teams almost always have loads of elite talent. Kentucky’s recent runs have been sparked by rosters full of future NBA lottery picks, but championship contenders usually need one or two unheralded glue guys, too. Guys like Dominique Hawkins.
Though the Wildcats welcomed five 5-star freshmen to campus and have more accomplished veterans who’ll push for starting spots, the senior guard from nearby Richmond, Ky., could be a critical piece come March.
The rundown: Hawkins was desperate for a scholarship offer from John Calipari in March 2013, and a combination of fate and performance delivered one. Only because he missed the NCAA Tournament – for the only time as Wildcats coach – Calipari was there when Hawkins averaged 26.8 points and 8.8 rebounds in four high school playoff games at Rupp Arena. After Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball led his team to a state title, the UK offer quickly followed.
Hawkins’ career with the Cats has been a mixed bag: three NCAA Tournament appearances, two Final Fours, one national title game and an undefeated regular season – but individually, 1.4 points, 0.7 rebound and 0.5 assist per game in three seasons. Those numbers don’t tell the full story.
Proven strengths: What he lacks in offensive firepower, Hawkins makes up for in defensive prowess. An excellent athlete – see his ridiculous 44 ½-inch vertical leap at an on-campus combine for pro scouts last summer – he’s been used in spot duty to lock down opposing scorers. The most notable (and unexpected) contribution of his career came as a freshman. Hawkins came off the bench in the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four to stop Louisville’s Russ Smith, Michigan’s Nik Stauskas and Wisconsin’s Ben Brust. They were all prolific shot-makers who hit a combined 4 of 13 with Hawkins on the floor.
Problem areas: Hawkins shot 26.8 percent from the field and 18.9 percent from 3-point range through his first two seasons at Kentucky, and it clearly shook him. He grew hesitant to take a shot, admitting as much on more than one occasion. Although his confidence and shooting numbers crept up last season – 37 percent from the field, 27.6 percent from deep – he was hardly a threat. Injuries were a problem, too, as a broken shooting hand in the preseason caused him to start slowly and a high-ankle sprain (right after he dropped a career-high 13 points and 3 3-pointers on rival Louisville) cost him seven games in the meat of the schedule.
Predicted impact: The Cats have three McDonald’s All-Americans in the backcourt – Briscoe and freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk – so there’s no chance Hawkins starts. But with Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray bolting for the NBA and Charles Matthews transferring to Michigan, there’s really no depth at guard beyond Hawkins. His reliable defense, improving offense and the simple fact that Briscoe, Fox and Monk can’t play 40 minutes per game should give the 22-year-old senior a significant reserve role during his farewell tour.
In his words: “I learned that when I play with confidence, I’m a different player.” – Hawkins after he averaged 8.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.6 steals during a cultural-exchange basketball trip to the Far East this summer, including a 15-point game in which he hit 4 3-pointers and an 11-point, 7-assist game.
OTHER “RUN IT BACK” FEATURES:
- Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe is taking charge of a young team.
- Senior froward Derek Willis looks to build on breakout 2015-16 season.
UP NEXT IN THE SERIES:
- Sophomore 7-footer Isaac Humphries ready to take a step forward.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.