Bryce Hamilton seldom looked comfortable as a freshman last season playing under then-coach Marvin Menzies, and his 13 minutes per game reflected that unease as the coaches limited his play.
Then when T.J. Otzelberger took over, questions remained about whether Hamilton, not known for his outside shooting, would fit into the new coach’s offense that usually emphasizes 3-pointers.
Those questions didn’t go away once the season began. Hamilton struggled to find his way in the offense, often falling back into his comfort zone of shooting the midrange shots that the analytics-driven Otzelberger detests.
But over the past three games, that has all changed. Suddenly Hamilton’s an integral part of the offense, showing why he is probably UNLV’s best athlete and certainly why he was a four-star recruit who headlined the 2018 class.
Over that stretch, he has repeatedly found his way to the basket rather than settle for 10-footers, and is averaging 16 points a game. This week his improved play earned him recognition as the Mountain West player of the week.
“He’s playing phenomenal right now,” guard Amauri Hardy said. “He’s going to the boards. He’s being aggressive. He’s playing good defense. He’s talking. That’s what we need out of Bryce. He’s been a spark plug for us off the bench.”
Hamilton’s rise has coincided with the Rebels’ surge. They take a four-game winning streak into Wednesday’s game at Boise State and are 3-0 in the Mountain West.
UNLV has passed the ball much better over this stretch, and Otzelberger and Hamilton both credited that movement with Hamilton’s improved play. That’s because it puts him in better positions to succeed.
“I’m getting more comfortable with the offense,” Hamilton said. “I also feel we’re getting better as a group.”
The numbers show it.
Hamilton was shooting 35.6 percent before this current three-game stretch. Since then, he has made 20 of 33 shots for a 60.6 percentage.
By driving to the basket, Hamilton also has averaged 5.7 rebounds over those three games compared to 4.2 beforehand.
And he went from shooting 3.1 3-pointers per game to attempting 2.3 over these three.
“Bryce has a very intentional mindset right now of what he needs to do,” Otzelberger said. “As the ball moves better and it finds Bryce in the flow of the offense, he’s able to attack. If Bryce holds the ball and dribbles and the defense gets set, that’s where we pick up charges and turnovers and tough shots.”
At 6 feet 4 inches, Hamilton plays above his height, and he is the Rebels’ best dunker. He finds way to score around the rim against players several inches taller by using his burst to the basket and his strong jumping ability.
That was the kind of player Menzies and his staff signed and hoped to see.
Otzelberger and his assistants like what they see as they watch Hamilton develop. But they know the sophomore is far from a finished product.
“Bryce has a lot of potential, a lot of ability,” Otzelberger said. “He needs to continue to embrace that and work harder, get better, and things will go his way.”
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■ Who: UNLV at Boise State
■ When: 6 p.m. Wednesday
■ Where: ExtraMile Arena, Boise, Idaho
■ TV/Radio: ESPN3 (online stream); KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
UNLV (8-8, 3-0 Mountain West)
Coach: T.J. Otzelberger (8-8, first season)
Boise State (10-6, 2-2 MW)
Coach: Leon Rice (188-122, 10th season)