BOULDER – Jaron Hopkins’ offense – specifically, his three-point shooting – has swiveled the spotlight in his direction in Colorado’s two most recent basketball games. But Hopkins’ defense, according to coach Tad Boyle, is what can keep the rapidly improving 6-5 freshman at center stage before the 2013-14 season ends.
The stage won’t get much bigger, the lights much brighter than Saturday at the Coors Events Center. Hopkins likely will be the first CU defender matched against Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, also a first-year player but nobody’s idea of just another freshman.
Wiggins, from Vaughn, Ontario by way of Huntington Prep, W. Va., has drawn more national hoops attention to Lawrence than any incoming freshman since Danny Manning. His stay – remember Danny & The Miracles in 1988? – turned out pretty well for the Jayhawks, although Wiggins doesn’t figure to put down four-year roots at Allen Fieldhouse.
The smart money (and lots of it) is on one-and-done for the 6-8 Wiggins, last season’s Naismith High School Player of The Year and the Gatorade Athlete of The Year. Through seven games at KU, he’s disappointed no one, averaging 14.3 points and 5.6 rebounds – good but not gaudy break-in numbers on a team that features another pair of McDonald’s All-Americans (sophomore forward Perry Ellis and freshman guard Wayne Selden, Jr. are the others).
College hoops devotees – and that includes Hopkins – have taken note of Wiggins, his accomplishments and the hype storm that preceded his arrival in the Heartland. “Yeah, it’s kind of hard to ‘un-notice’ it,” Hopkins said with a grin. “I try not to; I try to treat him as any other player I’m playing against. But he’s on a national level and we recognize that as a team. We’re all going to come in (Saturday) and defend as best we can.”
Hopkins’ first impression on his teammates sometimes was made by his athleticism, sometimes by his struggling simply to get it right. “Some days you’re wondering what’s going on (with him), other days you’re flat out amazed by what you see,” sophomore center Josh Scott said. “When he uses his talent like the coaches want, it’s a pretty cool thing to see. I see talent – and he’s starting to figure out how to apply it.”
Only nine games into his college career, glimpses of Hopkins’ athleticism have been apparent to anyone paying attention. Early on, he’s wowed Coors Events Center attendees with alley-oop slams or steals and stuffs – as he contributed Tuesday night at Moby Arena in CU’s 67-62 win against Colorado State. Boyle called it “the biggest play of the game.”
But also in that game, Hopkins hit back-to-back three-point attempts at a critical stage in the second half when the Buffs were rallying from a five-point deficit. That pair of treys gives him five (in six attempts) in the last two games. He was three-of-four from behind the arc last weekend in the Buffs’ 81-57 win at Air Force.
Of his offense, Hopkins said, “When I set foot on campus it wasn’t polished enough. It’s still coming around and I think coach is seeing it and the other guys as well.”
Boyle concurs: “Everybody looks at his jump shot – and he’s made some shots, which is nice.”
You know there’s going to be a “but” with Boyle about Hopkins and his offense: “But that’s icing on the cake . . . he’s gotten much better defensively and he’s been rebounding well; he had four against CSU, but could have had five or six if he secured some (better).”
And here’s another “but” from Boyle: “But he’s athletic enough to be our best defender when he puts his mind to and plays with that sense of urgency. He’s just never had to, it’s never been demanded of him, to play defense before.”
That, of course, is about to change against the gifted Wiggins and the Jayhawks. Hopkins, however, won’t be the lone Buff to match up against Wiggins. Boyle also plans to use junior Spencer Dinwiddie in that role, and could call on another of CU’s freshmen for that duty.
From tape Hopkins has watched of Wiggins in trying to identify tendencies, “I know he likes to spin a lot, so I’m going to have to play the spin and be a solid defender,” Hopkins said. “I feel like I’m getting better as a Division I defender. I’m playing against the best players on the (other) teams a lot of the times. The hand-checking rules have been a big adjustment, but I think I’m getting my hands out, getting better at that.”
At least four Pac-12 Conference schools and that many other Western schools – CSU, New Mexico, UTEP, Boise State – were in pursuit of Hopkins before he signed with Boyle and the Buffs. Complementing his athleticism, he’s rich in basketball smarts and has “a great sense for anticipating,” Boyle said. “Away from the ball is usually where freshmen have to get better; they tend to relax and stand around. In college, especially getting ready for Air Force, we talked about that a lot. He’s gotten better.”
Hopkins grew up in Mesa, Ariz., with former USC/Nebraska guard Kevin Augustine assisting him in training until Hopkins’ junior year at Dobson High School, where he averaged 22.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 2.1 steals as a senior. He also set Dobson’s single-game scoring record (43 points) in his senior season.
His short list of NBA stars he most like to emulate includes LeBron James (Miami) and Jamal Crawford (L.A. Clippers). Physically, Hopkins (6-5, 190) is more the cut of Crawford (6-5, 200) than James (6-8, 250), but he says, “I like how (James) leads his team . . . if I had to model my game after someone it would be (Crawford) in terms of handling the ball, shooting the ball, his playmaking on offense.”
He didn’t mention defense, but that probably can be excused as a freshman oversight. Playing ‘D’ the way Boyle demands it is more grind than glamor and isn’t done immediately by most first-year Buffs, said Scott: “When all of us freshmen came in last year we were all defensive liabilities. (Hopkins) has improved to where he’s no longer a liability; he’s a pretty solid defender. That’s a pretty good thing, a good evolution.”
Taking another solid step in that evolutionary process would be timely – especially on Saturday.