Friday, Oct. 21, 2011 | 2 a.m.
When describing his role as a group reservations intern at the MGM Grand this summer, Justin Hawkins summed it up by saying he did a little bit of everything.
That's not much different from the part he's mastered as a UNLV reserve guard over the last two years.
Every team needs them — Those commonly referred to as 'glue guys.'
They're the players who can hold a team together both on the court when a game gets hectic, or off the court in a transition period, much like the one UNLV is in now under first-year coach Dave Rice.
"It's just a natural fit for me," Hawkins said. "Not being a mediator, but just being that person who brings the whole team together."
So, what does it take to actually be the glue?
"Being very open-minded, not really judgmental about anything, just have that well-rounded personality and those attributes," he said. "Definitely very lacking of an ego."
At no point in his basketball career has anyone ever accused Hawkins of having an ego.
Whether it was on his loaded-yet-sometimes-dysfunctional AAU teams — well-documented in George Dohrmann's outstanding book Play Their Hearts Out — or at powerhouse Taft High in Woodland Hills, Calif., Hawkins has never needed to be a star in order to be effective.
His niche the last two seasons for the Rebels has been as a lock-down defender off of the bench. Hawkins came to UNLV with a reputation as a great athlete who could be depended upon to slow down almost any perimeter foe on the defensive end, and he's lived up to the billing, highlighted by a steal on a late-game inbounds play to wrap up a victory last November over Wisconsin. In that game, he also came in earlier to guard Badgers point guard Jordan Taylor — one of the finest floor generals in the country — and didn't allow him to score a point.
"His reputation, first and foremost from the defensive side, was that he was as good an on-the-ball defender as there was in the league," said Rice, who while at BYU coached against him five times in the last two years. "And that's still the case. That's a big deal. When you have a guy with the ability to guard the basketball the way he does, especially with the way we're trying to play pressure defense, that's a huge asset to have."
Now, Hawkins would like to give a little bit more on the other end.
Playing 18.8 minutes over 33 games as a sophomore, Hawkins averaged five points off of 41.7 percent shooting.
But the problem was consistency.
While his minutes stayed pretty regular, his offensive output didn't. Hot and cold streaks would come and go for Hawkins, but most of the time when he hit a bad run, a yank on a short leash from former coach Lon Kruger wasn't far behind.
That, at times, made things snowball in the wrong direction for Hawkins. Especially with his outside shot.
Scoring in transition or getting to the rim has never been an issue for the athletic and quick Hawkins in his time at UNLV, and now, he said he's feeling more confident than ever in his jumper.
Hawkins agreed that part of the reason for the visible improvement so far in practices under Rice is that he's no longer thinking about it as much. Rather than finding himself in catch-and-shoot situations in half-court sets, it appears now that within Rice's uptempo system, he'll be firing away with a quicker trigger on the run and shooting.
"It's definitely free-flowing — If you're open, shoot it, if not, swing it with an extra pass," Hawkins said. "They want us playing confident. We're all playing with a high level of confidence. Just me in transition, I have a lot of momentum and confidence, because that's my strength, running up and down the court on defense and offense at a fast pace."
Added Rice: "I think sometimes, guys like Justin who are extremely bright and have a really good feel for the game, that can hurt their confidence, because they get into a shooting slump and they think about it too much. I think the thing for us is we want him to play with confidence on the offensive end, shoot the ball when he's open. He has the ability to make plays, he can utilize his athleticism to really make a strong contribution for us this year."
In all likelihood, Hawkins' contributions will again come as a reserve, as he could see time at either spot in what will become a crowded backcourt rotation when Marquette transfer Reggie Smith becomes eligible in mid-December. But what he continues to do between games will remain just as important as what Hawkins does during them.
Last season, there would be times when teammate and roommate Karam Mashour, new to the country by way of Israel, would struggle to break through the language barrier at practice and get visibly confused. Between reps, Hawkins would pull him aside and slowly clarify things for him.
So far this year, he's been an aggressive defender in practices, helping set a tone and remind the rest of the team that along with the exciting new offense Rice and his staff are bringing, strong defense is still in the Rebels' DNA.
"All the coaches talked to me, since they know my defense on the ball and off the ball pretty well, they just want me to not be the weak link, and also help my teammates on defense," Hawkins said. "I find myself being the glue of the team, always being interactive with all of my teammates. I'm not saying we have cliques or anything, but I feel like I can relate to everybody on the team."
That attribute is important now more than ever before for Hawkins.