TAMPA — With all of 17 points in his first 14 games, USF freshman guard JaVontae Hawkins was content to make this a low-key season of transition, easing into college basketball with a small role off the bench.
But two injuries pressed him into a starting role, and the timetable for Hawkins' arrival has accelerated, with 33 points in his past four games. As the Bulls work to improve on a 1-5 start in Big East play, the sharpshooter from Flint, Mich., has gone from a future star to a player making key contributions immediately.
"I knew it was going to come at some point but didn't know it would come that soon," the 6-foot-5 guard said Friday as he prepared for a home game today against No. 24 Notre Dame. "I was just waiting for the opportunity to be given. I love doing what they ask me to do. If that's being in the spotlight, I never had a problem with that."
Today, he is a gym rat, often stopping by the Muma Center in the middle of the night for extra practice. But amazingly, Hawkins didn't take up basketball until the eighth grade, at a friend's urging.
"I was just into video games," Hawkins said. "I was one of the tallest in there, about 6 feet, so he asked me if I ever played basketball. I said no. I just tried out, and I didn't like it that much. As the season went on, I started making more friends, seeing the bonding, and I started loving the game."
His parents liked the new hobby, which got him out of the house and away from the violence and dangers that can confront a teenager growing up in hardscrabble Flint.
"With video games, I was probably a lazy kid, always wanted to sleep around, watch TV. They said I needed to do something productive," Hawkins said. "They pushed me even more to play basketball."
That USF's Stan Heath landed a coveted recruit out of Michigan is a testament to the coach's roots as an assistant at Michigan State, where the Spartans' 2000 national championship squad was led by the "Flintstones" trio of Mateen Cleaves, Charlie Bell and Morris Peterson, all from Flint. Cleaves is a mentor to Hawkins and endorsed Heath to the recruit.
"We have a very close relationship," said Hawkins, who often works out with Cleaves when he's back in Michigan.
Cleaves, now a TV analyst for CBS Sports Network, said that as Hawkins embraced basketball, it helped bring out a hard-working nature that has carried over.
"The sky's the limit for JaVontae, with his size, his athleticism, his God-given ability," Cleaves said. "The thing I really love about him is his work ethic. He'll get in that gym. I give him the straight-up Flint, Mich., attitude. I never give him any praise. I'm always on him, but I love that he doesn't mind working."
That history with Heath made Hawkins choose the Bulls over more established programs such as Michigan, Cincinnati, Ohio State, USC, Arizona State, Iowa, Vanderbilt and DePaul. He already has seen changes since coming to campus — he arrived at 188 pounds and was quickly up to 207, with a confidence that comes with the added muscle.
Hawkins played 33 minutes in USF's home win against Georgetown, scoring eight of the team's first 10 points, then making the highlight reels with two acrobatic baseline drives for under-the-basket layups.
Heath, who grew up in Detroit, has had great success with Flint products, and isn't surprised by how well Hawkins has handled a bigger role, especially against tougher Big East foes. Toughness, he said, is a given in Flint.
"That's in his genes. It's where he's from. If you ever go to Flint, it's as tough a town as you're going to find," Heath said. "It's a town that's been hit hard by the (decline of the) economy, by the auto industry. I haven't seen a kid from Flint yet that doesn't have toughness, that doesn't compete, that doesn't work hard. That's what's in his blood."
So while it's too early to make parallels to a player who captained a national championship team and played six years in the NBA, Heath said there are moments when Hawkins reminds him of Cleaves and has the coach excited about the freshman's future.
"It brings back a lot of really good memories," Heath said. "You see some of the same attributes. He wants it bad. There's a lot of things you can teach, but you can't teach a kid how bad he wants something. He's a hard worker. He's got a high ceiling. You can tell he's still learning, still developing. … As he evolves and really masters his game, his leadership will come out."