Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
The summer before Justin Hawkins' senior season at Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft High, he sat in UNLV coach Lon Kruger's office while in town for an unofficial campus visit.
The exchange, which is documented in a new book written by George Dohrmann called Play Their Hearts Out, involved Kruger telling Hawkins that the Rebels were interested in him coming to join the program, but the coach also was blunt regarding what he thought Hawkins' weaknesses were.
"Your ballhandling needs work, and your shot could be more consistent," Kruger was recounted as saying in the book, also telling Hawkins how much he liked his defensive tenacity. "Also, I think you can be too passive on offense. It is good you look to get others involved, but sometimes a player needs to be selfish."
Oddly enough, after a freshman year full of adjustments, those three areas of Hawkins' game were main focal points during a busy summer. Now, he appears poised to grab some of the minutes made available after senior stalwart Kendall Wallace went down with a season-ending injury.
So far, through almost two weeks of practices, Hawkins has looked more aggressive with the ball and, in general, carried more swagger with his actions. It is evidenced by the number of times he's fearlessly taken the ball at the UNLV big men on drives from the perimeter.
"In the weight room over the summer, (strength and conditioning coach Jason Kabo) thought I had to get a lot stronger in that area because last year when I'd go to the bucket, I'd get off-balance when I got bumped," Hawkins said. "I feel like this year, with the way we play, I'll have to be able to go to the basket strong no matter who we're going up against.
"I'm a lot more confident. I think my shooting's gotten a lot better. I feel like I'm a lot stronger on defense, moving side to side."
Most college basketball players make their biggest leaps from freshman to sophomore year, and with Hawkins, it seemed almost a certainty that would be the case.
He came to college more mature than most 18-year-olds, and it's well-documented in Dohrmann's book.
The central figure in Play Their Hearts Out is Demetrius Walker, who is sitting out this season following a transfer from Arizona State to New Mexico. It deals with the greasy underworld of grassroots basketball, including how people are used, deals are made, some profit and others are cast aside.
Dohrmann, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated who won a Pulitzer Prize for his uncovering of the Minnesota basketball program's academic fraud scandal in the 1990s while at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, first introduced Hawkins into the book before he'd even become a teenager. Over the course of nearly a decade, Dohrmann was a fixture in Hawkins' life, there at nearly every turn in his basketball career.
Throughout the 408-page read, the stories of Hawkins' peers growing up range from tragic to sad, while he managed to make it through the ringer better than almost anyone.
A lot of that had to do with the guidance of his mother, Carmen, who was a forceful figure in the book. She had a busy work life as a lawyer but kept a watchful eye on Justin to make sure he didn't get caught up in the dark side of the summer basketball circuit.
His story is followed up all the way to the day he committed to UNLV in Kruger's office after he and Carmen made the decision over orders of orange chicken at a P.F. Changs restaurant near campus.
"She was always there, no matter what," Hawkins said. "Even when she had to work, had two or three cases on her hands, she would always find time to be there. She knew what was really going on in the background. I was 11 or 12 and didn't know. She made sure I wasn't caught up in all of the hoopla."
That type of guidance was also what prepared Hawkins to survive what was, to say the least, an up-and-down freshman season.
He looked comfortable early, scoring double-digit points in three of the Rebels' first four games. Hawkins played 17.6 minutes a night in the first five games, but then his gradual progress went off of a cliff of sorts.
In a 74-72 double-overtime win at Arizona on Dec. 2, he played only eight minutes, looked flustered while on the floor and all of a sudden completely out of his element.
From that point on, Hawkins would have a couple of bright spots but had trouble regaining the consistency he'd shown right out of the gates. From the Arizona game on, he shot just 36.1 percent from the floor and 21 percent from 3-point range. For the season, he scored 3.3 points a game while averaging 12.4 minutes.
Truth was, he had much more on his plate than worrying about the hardwood.
"Around that Arizona game, it was the end of the semester, so I had a lot of finals coming up. I didn't know how to balance between studying for finals, being on the court and getting extra shots up (after practice) and watching film like I usually did in the beginning of the semester," he recalled. "My confidence fell and I really didn't know how to get back on track until late in the season."
As expected, though, Hawkins persevered and is poised for a big boost as more now falls on his shoulders.
He's taken charge on the floor so far in practices, including an impressive display during the Oct. 15 FirstLook scrimmage, in which he fluidly orchestrated a group made up of himself, Quintrell Thomas, Mike Moser, Karam Mashour and others. Since then, he's done a nice job of leading UNLV's second unit every afternoon.
Hawkins also is showing signs of an improved jumper, as he's still spending plenty of time with assistant coaches and fellow sophomore guard Anthony Marshall shooting perimeter shots after practices.
Physically, the signs of a summer spent working diligently in the weight room are apparent.
On top of it all, he's adjusted his schedule outside of basketball accordingly. No longer stacking all of his classes on top of each other a few days a week to get a couple of afternoons free, he's spread things out. Also, he's enrolled in a couple of online courses, since he has the discipline to force himself to sit down and get things done without a professor's deadlines or say so.
"He's battled it; he's carrying himself with a lot more confidence and a lot more maturity this time around," Kruger said. "As far as confidence on the floor, he seems to have grown. He's really doing a nice job. He's a great kid, great worker, great team guy. You have to like everything about him."
No matter how much Hawkins' numbers improve this season, though, there's plenty that young players coming up through the ranks just like he once did can learn from his story told by Dohrmann.
Not every fledgling hoops prodigy will have the same support system that Hawkins did to help make it, but he hopes that his particular story can be an inspiration.
Unlike some of Hawkins' friends and teammates in the book, he's taking full advantage of a chance to keep adding to that story.
"Now that I'm 20 and I read the book, it's just crazy thinking about everything that happened back then. I know that most of the stuff in that book was controversial, but at the same time, I didn't really think about it because I was at such a young age," he said. "Hopefully (others) will have the courage to know the difference between right and wrong and not just go with what's generally accepted throughout the (basketball) community."