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Pillars of the program: These Huskies look to lead UW men’s basketball to success in 2022-23 season

Percy Allen Seattle Times

A break in a photo shoot allows Mike Hopkins a moment to do what he does best: teach and motivate.

“It never stops,” he says. “You’re always looking for ways to connect. It’s like they say, ABC: Always be coaching.”

At this moment, Hopkins is explaining the nuances of a basketball play the Huskies recently installed. He’s detailing the possible options — baseline screens, elbow cuts and various shot possibilities — given the defense’s reaction.

A few feet away, Jamal Bey nods in agreement while Keion Brooks Jr. offers a suggestion. Hopkins listens and the three talk for several minutes before coming to an agreement on what needs to happen.

“With some coaches, it’s their way or else,” Brooks says later. “Hop will let you talk it out so you can figure it out. That’s not just with me, that’s with everybody. He empowers guys to speak up and in that sense, we all kind of take ownership of what’s going on.

“That’s why I say, we got a bunch of leaders. It’s not just one, two or three people. I feel like everybody in that locker room can speak up and say what needs to be said.”

Maybe so, but the fate of the Huskies will ultimately fall to four men. In this season preview of the 2022-23 Washington men’s basketball season, we take a look at each of them.

The Old Man

Barring injury, fifth-year senior Jamal Bey will pass former Husky star and current UW assistant Quincy Pondexter to move into the top spot on the school’s all-time games played list with 137 on Jan. 12.

“That just means I’ve been here a long time,” the 23-year-old Bey said, smiling. “Man, I’ve seen it all. Or I should say, I’ve seen a lot and been through a lot from the highs to the lows.”

The pinnacle came early for Bey, who was a reserve averaging 6.2 minutes as a freshman on a senior-laden team that advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2018.

And Bey takes accountability for Washington’s dismal 5-21 record in 2020-21 as a junior when he tallied career highs in scoring (10.3 points per game), three-point percentage (50.7%) and minutes (31.1 per game).

What advice would he give his younger self?

“I would tell him, take one day at a time and not stress too much about the future,” Bey said. “Just be in the moment every day and enjoy it because it’s going to go by pretty quickly. It’s a cliché, but it does. Just be happy with every stepping stone and all the ups and downs during a season.

“When I first got here, I just wanted to start. It didn’t matter that I had (Matisse Thybulle) and Jaylen Nowell in front of me. … Then I let myself get sidetracked by other things, mostly people projecting what my game should look like and not trusting myself.”

In the ever-changing college basketball world where more than 1,700 players transferred last season, Bey is a unicorn considering he’ll play his entire career at Washington.

“I want to go out on my own terms,” said Bey, a graduate student with a degree in medical anthropology and enrolled in the Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership master’s program. “Getting back to the NCAA tournament is super important to me. That’s one of the biggest reasons why I stayed. I just want to leave everything out there.

“I did that before, but even more now. Dive on the floor more for loose balls. Shoot shots I know I can make, live with the results, be comfortable with every obstacle that comes and try to take this team as far as I can.”

The hometown kid

The Cougar-turned-Husky knows more about Washington basketball than anyone on the team.

“My sister (Aminah) played here (in 2011-14) and is one of the top rebounders in UW history,” Noah Williams said about his older sibling who ranks second all-time among Huskies in boards. “Coming out of high school, I wanted to come to U-Dub, but everything didn’t go as planned. I committed to Buffalo, but the coaches left and that opened up my recruiting process. I had the option to go to Wazzu and stay close to home.”

After leading O’Dea High to a Class 3A state title in 2019, begrudgingly Williams, the son of 1980s WSU standout Guy Williams, followed in the footsteps of his famous father.

“Honestly, I never really thought about being a Cougar,” Williams said. “When (former WSU coach) Ernie Kent was there, I wasn’t heavily recruited by them. It wasn’t until Kyle Smith got there and he recruited me out of San Francisco as well. I never really thought about following my dad. I always wanted to make my own journey and make my own path.”

Still, Williams garnered a reputation as a disruptive perimeter defender and became a Coug fan favorite. He started 40 of 56 games his first two seasons, earning an All-Pac-12 honorable mention after averaging 14.1 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.6 steals as a sophomore.

Williams garnered preseason All-Pac-12 recognition before his junior season, but his production (9.5 points and 3.1 rebounds) declined, his minutes reduced and he was replaced in the starting lineup at the end of the season.

When asked why he chose Washington, Williams said: “To be close to my family.”

“My dad loved it,” he said. “My whole family was happy. They all wanted me to come back home. They knew what I was going through. They were very supportive of it. Any decision I make, my family would be supportive. It doesn’t matter.”

Williams posted a 4-2 record against UW in the Apple Cup series and knows his on-court fiery persona adds spice to the cross-state rivalry.

“I definitely have a different energy on the court for sure,” said the soft-spoken Williams. “That’s just me being competitive and where I grew up. We don’t take no BS. I’m really locked in when I get between those lines.

“I feed off energy and people that talk smack. Talking smack is what really gets me going. That’s when I can play free. … To be honest, I talk to myself most of the time. You may think I’m talking to somebody, but half of the time I’m talking to myself.”

The Wildcat

Considering his basketball-rich pedigree, it might take Brooks awhile to get adjusted to unfamiliar surroundings and Seattle’s laid-back relationship with college hoops.

UW’s highly touted newcomer was born in basketball-crazed Fort Wayne, Indiana, starred in high school at national prep powerhouse La Lumiere in Indiana alongside former Husky standout Isaiah Stewart and played the past three years with the Kentucky Wildcats where UK fans believe a Final Four appearance is a birthright.

“Seattle is a lot different than what I’m used to,” Brooks said. “And I don’t mean anything negative by that. It’s just different that’s all.

“As far as the team, everybody has been great. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. They’ve gone out of their way to make sure I know what’s going on, helped me learn new things and teaching me how to do stuff here. It’s just been really good.”

If all goes according to plan, Brooks is Terrell Brown Jr. 2.0 and steps into a role previously occupied by the former UW star who led the Pac-12 in scoring last season while averaging 21.7 points per game.

“You can look at it that way, but the thing that’s going to get us to where we want to go is doing it together,” said Brooks, a 6-7 senior forward who averaged 10.8 points and 4.4 rebounds last season. “I don’t look at myself as a one-man show or the guy or the savior. That’s unfair to my teammates. They put a lot of hard work in. I wouldn’t say I’m the savior or nothing like that. I’m just coming in and trying to fit in and play hard.”

Still, the Huskies lost four starters and are in dire need of veteran leadership, especially in crunch time of close contests.

“I think I bring a little bit of everything,” Brooks said. “First and foremost, I bring experience. I’m a senior. I played in some big games. I bring toughness. … With my size I’m able to switch multiple positions when we do play man.

“I know we play a lot of zone. I think I’m pretty instinctive on defense, but I’m still trying to figure out the zone a little bit. I’m just flying around and trying to make multiple efforts.”

And Washington needs Brooks to score like he did in their exhibition when he tallied a game-high 19 points.

“Being able to score at three levels is something I’ve been working on,” he said. “It’s going to come within the flow of the game. Being patient and knowing where my spots are. Then when I get it, taking my time, reading the defense and not doing anything that makes me uncomfortable.

“When you’re being relied on to score, you also got to respect that so when two come at you, then you got to find the open man. … More than anything, I just want to make the right play.”

The Architect

“I really like this group,” the jubilant UW coach said before a recent practice. “Look at them. They’re having fun. They’re enjoying each other and playing with each other. That’s all you can ask for right now.”

Following Washington’s 95-64 exhibition win last week against Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, Hopkins noted two statistics that made him smile.

Well, actually it was one statistic and an observation.

First, he was overjoyed by the Huskies’ 24 assists on 37 field goals.

“That tells me everybody is touching it, the ball isn’t sticking and we’re moving it,” Hopkins said. “That’s how we have to play. The ball has to pop. Get it and make a decision.”

And second, Hopkins was thrilled by the number of Huskies who dived on the floor defensively for loose balls, particularly senior guard PJ Fuller, who hit the court twice on the same play while attempting to snag a steal.

Hopkins noted Fuller’s effort didn’t result in a steal, but it led to a shot-clock violation and a turnover.

“Again, that’s how we have to play. When we’re the hungrier team, we win. Point blank. Or I should say, we put ourselves in a great spot to be successful if our defense is flying around and making plays. That’s what we want to hang our hat on. That’s Husky basketball.”

During his six-year tenure, which included a terrific two-year start (48-22) followed by a two-year decline (20-38) before last season’s 17-15 record, UW’s identity has been difficult to decipher at times.

At their best, the Huskies have relied on a ballhawking defense that features the 2-3 zone and a sensational scorer capable of carrying them late in games like Nowell, Stewart and Brown.

Hopkins believes this UW team, which may rely on a man-to-man defense at least early in the season, has the ability to be the best he’s ever coached. And Brooks has shown early flashes of being a dynamic scorer on par with his Husky predecessors.

“Every coach in America is happy going into the season because everybody is undefeated,” Hopkins said. “Can we be special? Sure. I believe that. I really think we can. But we got to put in the work. They know that. Until we play games, I can only tell you what I think and I really like this group because we like each other.”