SEATTLE – The first two seasons – that was the soft opening. It might have been surprising, and it might have been successful, but it wasn’t the unveiling of the man’s true vision.
This season is the grand opening. This is when Huskies basketball coach Mike Hopkins introduces his program to the country.
When Hopkins replaced Lorenzo Romar as Washington’s head hoops coach in 2017, he performed something of a Montlake miracle. After winning just nine games overall and going 2-16 in the Pac-12 the year before, the Huskies posted 21 wins during Hopkins’ first season, then 27 while capturing the Pac-12 title in his second.
The victory collection helped end a seven-year NCAA Tournament drought for Washington, which beat Utah State in the first round last March. Hopkins, meanwhile, took home Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors in both seasons.
The difference between then and now, though, is that most of the success came by way of Romar’s recruits. This year, it’s pretty much all Hop’s guys.
Gone are Jaylen Nowell and Matisse Thybulle, who won Pac-12 Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, respectively, last year. Gone are David Crisp, Noah Dickerson and Dominic Green, who round out last year’s top five in minutes played.
Save for senior center Sam Timmins, Hopkins is cooking with his own ingredients this season. And on paper, the meal looks delectable.
Headlining this year’s Huskies are freshman big man Isaiah Stewart and freshman wing Jaden McDaniels, who have both been projected as NBA lottery picks. Ask teammates about either and their eyes will widen, as they’ll use words such as “monster” to describe Stewart or phrases such as “the next KD (Kevin Durant)” for McDaniels.
Stewart stands 6-foot-9, weighs 250 pounds and was the consensus No. 3 recruit in the country by 24/7 sports. McDaniels is listed at 6-9 and was the consensus No. 8. Asked Tuesday about coaching players who might jet for the NBA after their first season, Hopkins said it made no difference in his approach.
“We’re not the one-and-done model,” Hopkins said. “We’re the get-the-right-guy model.”
Among those guys is junior guard Nahziah Carter, who had two 18-point games last year and averaged 11.5 points in the NCAA Tournament. There is Quade Green, the sophomore transfer from Kentucky who was a five-star recruit. There is redshirt freshman Nate Roberts, whose improvement Hopkins raved about, and redshirt freshman Bryan Penn-Johnson, whose improvement Roberts raved about.
“We have a lot of guys who are excited to prove themselves. We have some guys that redshirted last year that are pretty darn good that nobody even knows exist,” Hopkins said Tuesday. “People are talking about all these other guys but they’re going to be like, ‘Who’s that guy? I like him.’ ”
In turning the program around instantly, Hopkins has proved his ability to coach. In landing players such as Stewart and McDaniels, he has proved his ability to recruit, too.
Even so, his body of work didn’t impress voters enough to put the Huskies in the preseason Top 25. Perhaps the exodus of upperclassmen scared them away for now.
That isn’t unreasonable given that five-star talent can often flame out or take more time than anticipated to develop. As brilliant as Carter was in spots last year for the Huskies, he hasn’t shown he can maintain that performance level game after game. Then again, given the arsenal Washington has this year, he might not have to.
“Our coach tells us that every game might not be your game with all this talent,” Carter said. “One day he might have 25, one day he might have 20, but we all have to be a team and be unselfish.”
Through the first two years, Hopkins’ teams were just that. His emphasis on making the extra pass resonated, and the Huskies plowed through expectations as a result.
But this is a new test for Hopkins. This team is his baby in a way those previous squads weren’t.
Those first two years were as compelling a trailer as you’re going to find. But 2019-20? That’s the true premiere.
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