On Monday, Jordan Hawkins of the New Orleans Pelicans filled in for injured veteran C.J. McCollum in the starting lineup. During a year where the Pels are already being hit by the injury bug, this was the rookie’s fourth chance to start.
Even in a game where Nikola Jokić was the headliner with a 35-14-12 statline, Hawkins was a close second-best. In 38 minutes of action, he scored 31 points and grabbed seven boards on excellent efficiency. The guard only needed 19 shots to achieve his total, thanks to hitting seven of his 14 threes.
Only two rookies in the league have posted such a high scoring output: Hawkins and Victor Wembanyama, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft and the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. That’s exceptional company to keep. He’s also tied for the most threes in a player’s first seven games in NBA history with 20.
Having such a strong start is great – and is something that no player from the Dan Hurley era has really done. Since Hurley has taken over as the UConn head coach, he’s had four players drafted to the league.
The first was James Bouknight, who was taken in the late lottery in 2021. Due to a number of on and off court issues, he hasn’t panned out the way anyone would have hoped. Bouknight has shown flashes here and there with three career 20+ point games, but not much else.
Tyrese Martin was picked in the late second round in 2022, so there weren’t many expectations for his NBA career. He averaged 1.3 points in 16 games with the Atlanta Hawks in what was a near-nonexistent role. Now he plays for the Timberwolves’ G-League team. Andre Jackson Jr. was drafted in 2023 and is still in the infancy of his career, playing just two games and scoring as many points. Neither of these two are really fair to judge, since the expectations haven’t been there.
With the lack of NBA presence and NCAA tournament success in Hurley’s first four years, he needed at least one of those to go his way soon. Recruits want to see results. Some prefer it at the college level in the form of March Madness wins, while others prefer lottery picks and great players in the league. Most are fond of both.
The National Championship solved the former issue. Most coaches go their whole career without a ring, so Hurley’s already more than checked that box. The NBA issue also seems to be solving itself, slowly but surely. Pointing at lottery picks is nice; but if Hawkins were to make an All-Rookie team or collect further accolades, that would really put Hurley in a great position.
Using Bouknight as a talking point was likely helpful in recruiting someone like current freshman and former five-star recruit Stephon Castle, who committed to the Huskies in mid-November of 2021. That was at a time when Bouknight was in his first month of the league and there was more potential than tangible results. After debacles involving a bag of doritos, a gun and a DWI, along with a separate altercation with former coach James Borrego, advertising Bouknight as a model of where a top 50 recruit could be three years after committing became considerably less powerful.
Things happen that are out of coaches’ control though. Some players don’t pan out and that’s okay. Kentucky has no shortage of NBA talent, but less frequently discussed is their plethora of NBA busts. Skal Labissière, James Young and Archie Goodwin were all Wildcats picked in the first round over the last decade, yet none have been impressive. You don’t hear about them though. Instead Tyrese Maxey, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns and many more are discussed.
No school is going to have a perfect hit rate. If you have one Fox for every Labissière, that’s fantastic. Having players like Bouknight is fine, but you can’t exclusively have players like him. It reduces a coach’s credibility in a number of ways to NBA teams who are looking to get a real sense of a player from their coach – and also to recruits who want to believe that the school can make them an NBA star.
If Hawkins is as good as he seems to be through seven games, that is massive for Hurley. Not that he’s had any issues recruiting, but it moves the needle in a very positive direction. Even if Hawkins doesn’t pan out, Castle and Donovan Clingan, both widely projected to be selected in the top 10 of this year’s draft, still provide opportunities for NBA success.
This all should be taken with a grain of salt. Winning at the NCAA level will always be the most important thing. If you can bring home championships, that’ll recruit itself. The championship this past spring was nearly enough to lure generational talent Cooper Flagg from his dream school, Duke. But having players that are developed into NBA talent is another critical aspect that can’t be overlooked. Hurley has several chances to do this in the next few years, something that will be helpful for the program and for his legacy as a whole if all goes to plan.