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UNLV’s Bryce Hamilton finally realizes potential

It wasn’t a fork in the road but rather a choice across 94 feet of hardwood.

Bryce Hamilton struggled with such truth earlier this college basketball season.

He ultimately picked the best lane to attack.

“I just had a ‘come to Jesus’ talk with myself,” Hamilton said. “Just get things right. Get my head straight. Mature. Travel the right path. Believe in my coaches and teammates.

“People always talk about my potential. I don’t want to be known for that. I want to be the best player I can be.”

Whatever sense of enlightenment came from such a personal chat has done wonders for Hamilton’s future and that of UNLV. Wake-up calls can be awfully piercing, especially when delivered by someone as candid as T.J. Otzelberger.

I’m not sure the guy has minced words in his life.

The Rebels meet Boise State on Thursday in the Mountain West tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center. UNLV, picked seventh in the preseason media poll, enters as the fourth seed and having won five straight.

It means confidence won’t be lacking for a Rebels side when play begins for the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.

It absolutely won’t be for a certain rising sophomore guard.

Hamilton is a deserving first-team all-conference pick by media and coaches. He averaged 20.8 points and 6.7 rebounds in league games while shooting over 50 percent.

You never would have expected anything close to this in mid-December, when he violated team rules and was benched for it.

Otzelberger then offered another choice: Buy in or keep sitting.

You see which way Hamilton went and, for it, everyone came to witness yet another Hamilton making his way.

His brother Blake (Buffalo) and cousins Isaac (UCLA), Daniel (Connecticut), Jordan (Texas) and Gary (Miami) all played college ball.

Daniel and Jordan were NBA draft picks; Blake and Isaac still play overseas.

“I was the youngest,” Bryce said. “They were always bigger and faster, making me cry when we played, pushing me around, making me tougher. But they also made me the player I hope I am today and will become.”

It’s 2020, which means most any player who produces the type of season Hamilton has inevitably will have his name linked to all sorts of options.

Often — whether a player is ready or not for such a step — those include submitting one’s name to the NBA draft.

Ceiling is high

“What I tell Bryce every day is that he developed because he stayed focused on getting better,” Otzelberger said. “You can’t have a plan of worrying about the NBA and what steps need to be taken. Start doing that and you often end up where you don’t want to be.

“We will work on things for next season, and as he keeps getting better, it will be pretty straight forward what the best thing for Bryce is. If the best thing is an opportunity professionally, we’ll encourage and support him. If the right thing for his long-term future is to be a Rebels for a senior year, then that will be it.”

The learning curve is not near its apex.

Hamilton needs to become a much better off-ball defender (he stands and watches things too often before reacting) and should be the league’s best rebounding guard. He isn’t.

Also, the idea that he will replicate or even improve on his sophomore numbers is questionable, given some of those (see Jenkins, David) who sat out this season.

Hamilton, though, has the best type of coach to help him realize such goals. Compromise within the culture isn’t part of Otzelberger’s program.

No matter your numbers or standing, there isn’t an inch of room for divisiveness.

Look at Hamilton now.

Look what buying in gets a kid.

“As a coach, I saw tremendous potential with him when we came in,” Otzelberger said. “But potential can also be an insult, because it’s almost saying, ‘You’re not producing right now.’ I knew that if we gave him a great opportunity, he would be successful.

“What we tried to impress on Bryce is, we’re going to drive you hard every day and stay at you and tell you the truth and demand more. I want him to be the best player he can be. If he continues to improve, it’s going to be great for UNLV basketball and great for Bryce Hamilton, wherever that leads him.”

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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