Georgetown’s overtime thriller against No. 1 Indiana on Tuesday showed off the tantalizing potential and painful inexperience of sophomore center Mikael Hopkins.
Late in the second half, Hopkins, a player even the most ardent of Hoyas fans might have trouble recognizing, went one-on-one against the Hoosiers’ Cody Zeller, widely considered to be one of the best players in the nation, driving him hard to the hole and drawing a clutch three-point play that would help force overtime.
On the other side of the spectrum, while playing with four fouls, Hopkins‘ exuberance and rawness were exposed when he took an unnecessary foul to ensure his exit from the hotly contested game, which the Hoyas would go on to lose 82-72.
So while Hopkins drew raves from enraptured ESPN announcer Dick Vitale, one of the keys for Georgetown coach John Thompson III this season is making sure his green post man finds a happy medium between the highs and lows to become a consistent threat in the middle.
“We have a sophomore class that, as freshmen, made big contributions to what we were doing last year, Mikael being one of them,” Thompson said. “Now as sophomores, they have much different roles across the board. [Mikael] has to make significant strides. The expectations on him are much more, the responsibility he has is much more.”
The 6-foot-9 forward from DeMatha High School averaged 2.4 points and 1.1 rebounds in 30 games last season. So from a production standpoint, he’s already made great strides through the first four games of this campaign, scoring double figures in three contests, including a career-high 13 points in the Duquesne and Liberty games.
“I’m just trying to go out there and play well and get my team involved,” Hopkins said. “It’s a lot more pressure. Last year, I didn’t really play as much; this year, I’m in the starting lineup. It’s new for me. It’s an adjustment.”
The wiry Hopkins does not fit the prototypical Georgetown center mold, lacking the height and bulk of recent standouts such as Roy Hibbert, Greg Monroe or Henry Sims. But Hopkins will be much quicker than most centers he goes up against, and his length gives the Hoyas another gangly defender when they employ their zone defensive look.
“I’m an undersized big man — I’ve been that my whole life,” Hopkins said. “I just have to use the things God gave me to succeed in this game. I have to use my quickness and athleticism to fight around bigger guys and not let them get deep post position. On the offensive end, I have to bring [defenders] out away from the basket and use my quickness to drive past them.”
Hopkins‘ speed is indeed his biggest asset, as he can fly down the court in the hopes of setting up easy scoring opportunities or getting back on the break defensively.
“I feel I’ve been doing a good job running the floor,” he said. “I’m going to continue to do that. I know it’s a lot of big men in this country who aren’t as fast as me, so I’m going to use that ability.”
Hopkins has been working with another undersized big man, junior forward Nate Lubick, to give the Hoyas a 1-2 punch in the paint. Having gone through his own growing pains, Lubick understands the challenges that Hopkins faces while learning on the fly.
“Mikael has worked hard,” Lubick said. “He had such a good summer. We’re all just excited for him. We have to keep his motor going. He’s a really big part of his team this year. Everyone has questions about our front line, but he and I, along with some of the other younger guys, will continue to fill in.”
Hopkins will have to become more aggressive on the boards — so far he has compiled just 16 rebounds in four games — and less concerned about outside shooting for Thompson to truly be pleased with his new big man, but the coach realizes there’s plenty of time to mold Hopkins into the kind of player he wants.
“He’s getting there,” Thompson said. “He’s a work in progress. He’s very far from where we need him to be, but he’s getting there.”
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