In early March — a few days before the world got turned upside down due to a rising pandemic — Houston appeared to be a realistic destination to capture a basketball championship title. But instead of depending on the Houston Rockets to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy, the city’s best title chances resided 10 minutes away inside the walls of the Fertitta Center.
The Houston Cougars — led by two-time AAC Coach of the Year winner Kelvin Sampson — had just clinched their second consecutive American Athletic Conference regular-season title and the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament. The Cougars were on pace to take home their first tournament title since 2010 and a dark horse to upset thousands of March Madness brackets as the last team standing holding the NCAA National Championship Trophy.
Unfortunately, Houston’s championship hopes came to an abrupt end when the NCAA announced the cancellation of all winter and spring sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Eight months later, the Cougars are on the heels of their 2020-21 college basketball season and are poised to recapture their conference dominance. But while their roster would be just as talented with the likes of Quentin Grimes, DeJon Jarreau and Caleb Mills making a return, the Cougars will be without one of their most important players from the previous year in Nate Hinton.
The North Carolina native embodied the culture of UH Basketball throughout the 2019-20 season. Hinton started all 31 games and averaged a career-best 10.6 points and 8.7 rebounds, while shooting 38.7% from behind the arc. With eight double-doubles on the season, he received second-team All-American Athletic Conference honors and first-team NABC All-District 24 recognition — while helping the Cougars finish the year with a 23-8 (13-5) record.
A successful sophomore season led to Hinton forgoing his remaining two years of college eligibility to enter the 2020 NBA Draft. As a projected second-round pick, a lifelong dream will be realized on Wednesday when Hinton hears his name called by Commissioner Adam Slivers welcoming him to the NBA.
“I’m just appreciative of this opportunity. In high school, I barely made it to the top 100. I have to keep grinding and putting in the work that has brought me this far, as well as trust God that He will make it work for me.” — Hinton.
First and foremost, how does it feel to be so close to achieving a lifelong dream of playing in the NBA with the draft coming up?
“Right now, it has not hit me yet, and it probably won’t until Wednesday after everything is said and done. But it’s like having some weight lifted off your shoulders. Now I’m going to be able to put my family in a better position and change my life. If someone would have told me this a year ago, I would have believed them, but then ask ‘show me how it’s going to happen.’ I’m just appreciative and thankful for everything.”
We know that this year has not been the typical way draftees have prepared for the draft in the past. What kind of effects has COVID-19 had on your ability to prepare for the draft?
“It actually helped me because now you are betting on a guy who is a hard worker and used to having the odds stacked against him. When my back is against the wall, that is when I am at my best. With training camp starting Dec. 1 and the season on Dec. 22, teams will be looking for players who are prepared and ready to win. I am ready. I can go right into training camp and compete from day one. When you give a guy like myself eight months to grind and to become better, I think any team that gets me will be very pleased and surprised when we head into training camp. I think that is what works in my favor.”
In what ways has this draft process actually helped you on your quest to become a better basketball player?
“It has given me more confidence. To hear from NBA teams that what I do is valuable, and what I bring to the table is needed in the NBA — that’s just music to my ears. I have things I need to work on, but to get positive reviews, just being me as a player is incredible.”
Speaking of the feedback that you have received throughout the process, what are some of your biggest attributes that have drawn the attention of teams and scouts?
“My background as a hard worker. They have talked to coach Sampson and my other past coaches, and they are saying that I am a hard worker. I know it may sound a little cliche, but it is very important — especially if you are trying to find success in this league. My energy and intangibles have also stood out, but my ceiling is very high. The best is yet to come.”
Right now, NBADraft.net has you going 51st overall to the Golden State Warriors. If you don’t mind sharing, who are some of the teams you have worked out for, and which team does it look like you may get drafted to? Any hopes for you staying in Houston and playing down the street for the Rockets?
“I have to stay confidential on the teams I’ve worked out for. But even if I did have any indications of where I might go now, things could change come Wednesday. One of the things I would appreciate is to one day — now or later — have an opportunity to come back to Houston and play for the Rockets. That is one of the many goals I have in my career.”
How do you plan to support the Cougars this coming season? As well as become a mentor to some of your ex-teammates who may declare their name in next year’s NBA Draft?
“Now with me taking this step and having this opportunity, I can be a resourceful tool to let players know what they need to prepare for going into the interviews and works with these teams. I am going to do everything I can to make sure every year we have a draft pick coming out of Houston. I am going to be UH’s biggest fan. I’m always going to have love for the program and give back — always forever Coogs.”