STORRS, Conn. – The culture of college basketball today has put a premium on one of the great learning tools the sport had to offer. With so many players leaving early for the pros or transferring to other schools, there are fewer and fewer talented freshmen who get the opportunity to take notes on leadership from a fourth-year senior.
Connecticut swingman Daniel Hamilton got that increasingly rare tutorial as a freshman for the Huskies. As a teammate of senior guard Ryan Boatright, he was able to observe on the court and bond off the court.
One day, Hamilton may look back at that as the best educational experience of his basketball career. When Hamilton, a 6-foot-7 sophomore from Los Angeles, was named Freshman of the Year in the American Athletic Conference, he was immediately asked about the possibility of becoming a leader for the Huskies in 2015-16.
“I’m ready to take on that task,” Hamilton said as he cradled the rookie award last March. “I want to step up and do whatever Coach [Kevin Ollie] needs from me. Whatever that role is. I’ve learned a lot from coach about what he wants on and off the court.
“I learned a lot from Boat. Him being here all four years, him being able to get jumpers up in the gym late at night, and him taking us to the gym rather than just staying home like he could have done.”
Those words take on a different tone now that the Huskies are into their summer workout program. Boatright was not selected in the NBA Draft Thursday but he reportedly signed Saturday as a free agent with the Brooklyn Nets. His departure becomes reality for the Huskies as they gather for summer courses and get to work on the building chemistry between a new group of players.
Hamilton was one of just 20 college players invited to participate in the inaugural Nike Basketball Academy that began Friday and ends Monday in Santa Monica, Calif. It’s all part of the transition.
Ollie took a break Friday from his summer camp and recruiting schedule to look at the season ahead. It’s safe to say Hamilton has a lead role in this production. And if the Huskies have their way, the show will be extended all the way to the Final Four.
“He’s good,” Ollie said of Hamilton. Then he laughed. “That might be the understatement of the year. He’s very, very talented.”
How good? Well, Hamilton was the only freshman in the country last season to record 300 points (380), 200 rebounds (267) and 100 assists (128). He is only the second UConn freshman to post that combination of numbers. The other was Nadav Henefeld in 1989-90. Henefeld had 429 points, 208 rebounds and 106 assists.
“When you look at versatility, that’s it right there,” Ollie said.
Hamilton became the sixth freshman to lead UConn in rebounding (7.6 ppg). The others? Corny Thompson, Kevin Freeman, Caron Butler, Emeka Okafor and Andre Drummond. Not a bad fraternity. In a 60-49 victory over East Carolina on Feb. 25, Hamilton grabbed 17 rebounds. That was the highest single game total for a UConn player since Alex Oriakhi had 19 against DePaul in 2011 and the most for a UConn freshman since Thompson had 17 against Manhattan in 1979.
But perhaps the most astonishing stat from his freshman season was his assist total. It was second best on the team, trailing Boatright by only one. Each had 81 turnovers. That went largely unnoticed during the season.
Ollie wouldn’t hesitate to use Hamiton at any spot on the floor. The UConn coach doesn’t believe in labeling players with positions.
“He’s a point guard,” Ollie said. “He really is. I mean, he can pass the ball. And it’s not something we teach. . . . We teach him, don’t get me wrong. He just sees the court. You can’t teach that. It just comes from his vision, seeing plays before they happen. When you can see and pass like that, that’s just talent that came from God.”
Hamilton says it “just comes natural” to throw the lob pass and that was part of his arsenal as a freshman. He has the ability to drive and draw defenders to leave their assignments. In a 67-60 victory over Tulane last season Hamilton used that skill to assist on six baskets for 7-foot center Amida Brimah. It is a backbreaker for opponents and pulls the home crowd into the game. In that game against Tulane, Hamilton had nine assists to go with seven points and nine rebounds. Brimah finished with 19 points.
“It started in pickups during the summer,” Hamilton told reporters after the game. “We were playing pickups early in the summer and I was finding him and he was finishing them, so that translated to the game.”
Hamilton actually found that passing touch throwing lobs to his big brother, Isaac, in high school. The talented Hamilton clan includes six children. Isaac is at UCLA. Jordan played at Texas and has had stints with Utah and Denver in the NBA. Gary played at Miami (Fla.)
Daniel, who averaged 10.9 points and 7.6 rebounds as a freshman, has a chance to the best Hamilton of all. He doesn’t have to be the primary passer on a UConn team loaded with good guards, but he has already shown he can be a major contributor in so many facets of the game. And he doesn’t have to be the only leader. As a sophomore, he can count on seniors Sterling Gibbs, Rodney Purvis and Shonn Miller and Brimah, a junior, to share that load.
If Hamilton evolves to be a more vocal leader, Ollie won’t discourage that. But the key area for improvement will be his shooting. Hamilton struggled from the field (38 percent) and free throw line (66.7 percent) a year ago.
“We want him to be a better defender,” Ollie said. “We also want him to take better shots. Being 6-7 and as athletic as he is, he should be getting more dunks, more layups and not taking so many contested shots. I think that’s in the back of his mind. We showed him a lot of tape where he can get better shots.”
Ollie wants Hamilton to play “every possession like there’s no seconds left in life – forget about on the court. Once he gets that, with his talent, man, he’s going to have a great career in the NBA.”