You know it’s October. The leaves are changing color. The days are growing shorter. Dominique Hawkins sounds upbeat and hopeful as another Kentucky basketball season nears.
“I feel like this is the year I’m most comfortable with myself,” Hawkins said as the fall semester began. “I have a lot of confidence, probably the highest confidence I’ve ever had.”
Besides saying he had been shooting “tremendously,” Hawkins added one telling reason for his optimism. He had been “healthy this summer. … So it feels good.”
Allen Feldhaus, who coached Hawkins at Madison Central High, recalled how eagerly his former player looked forward to UK’s 2015-16 season.
“He was really positive going into last year,” Feldhaus said. “Then the injuries. I think that’s what killed him throughout the course of the year.”
Last season surely tested Hawkins’ penchant for broad smiles and infectious can-do enthusiasm.
He broke a bone in a hand during a preseason practice. That caused him to miss both exhibition games.
He missed the Wright State game because of an illness.
After scoring a career-high 13 points and making a career-high three three-pointers against Louisville, he sprained an ankle against Ole Miss. That caused him to miss the next seven games.
“It was so difficult because I had just played well,” Hawkins said. “Every time I was playing well, I was shooting the ball really well in practice, then I broke my hand right before the (NBA-styled) combine. I had a great game against Louisville. Then I sprained my left ankle. … It was so frustrating because I knew I was getting a lot of minutes. Then I have to come back and earn it all back again.”
Hawkins credited family and friends, especially his mother, Denise, for continuing to encourage him.
Nevermind the ever-present smile; Hawkins needed the encouragement.
“I definitely needed that,” he said. “Because if nobody did (encourage), I don’t know. I’d probably be depressed about why am I not playing. And why am I always getting hurt?
“But when people care about you, they tell you you’re going to be all right. You’re going to be fine. You’re going to get your shot.”
You might think the cycle of injury-and-rehab-and-return gets easier with repetition. You would be wrong.
“It was very difficult,” said Hawkins, who second-guessed his return from the ankle sprain when Kentucky played at Kansas. “I came back a little earlier than I should (have). But I was just so excited, and I wanted to get back on the court.”
Feldhaus is hopeful that Hawkins will finish his UK career on a high note. His minutes in the NCAA Tournament (17 against Stony Brook, 14 against Indiana) led the Madison Central coach to say he could enjoy an expanded role as a senior.
“I think he’s kind of like an old school-type player,” Feldhaus said. “He understands what a coach expects of him.”
UK Coach John Calipari alluded to Hawkins’ experience (don’t forget the work he did as a defensive stopper in the 2014 Final Four run).
But, of course, in another regular rite of autumn, Hawkins must compete against a set of more-heralded players. This time it’s freshmen De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, plus sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. In the past, Hawkins has sat behind Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis and Briscoe (2015-16), Andrew and Aaron Harrison, plus Devin Booker (2014-15) and the Harrison twins and James Young (2013-14).
That helps explain Hawkins’ career average of 8.4 minutes.
“Dom should be mentally ahead of these guys (Fox and Monk),” Calipari said. “Maybe physically (ahead). Maybe their basketball skills, some of these guys, are a little bit ahead of him. But mentally? Physically? No. No, they shouldn’t be.”
As a freshman, Hawkins reminded reporters that he had the same NBA aspirations as the typical one-and-done Kentucky player.
“I’m still with it right now,” Hawkins said of his NBA dream. “Definitely would love to play overseas if I do not go to the NBA.
“Hopefully, this last season I do well and the team does well. I’d rather the team do well than my individual self.”
Meet the Cats
Today’s stories on Dominique Hawkins and Dillon Pulliam are the seventh and eighth in a series of 14 on Kentucky’s 2016-17 men’s basketball players.
Coming next: Isaac Humphries and Mychal Mulder.