Dominique Hawkins has played at least 15 minutes in five straight games, including a career-high 23 in a win over Mississippi State on Wednesday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Willie Cauley-Stein knew all about his soon-to-be teammates when he elected to return for his sophomore season.He was aware of the hype surrounding Kentucky’s top-ranked 2013 recruiting class and his hope was to compete for a national championship with the newest batch of Wildcats. There was, however, one incoming freshman completely unknown to Cauley-Stein.Dominique Hawkins was the final member of John Calipari’s signing class, parlaying a Sweet Sixteen performance for the ages on his future home floor into a scholarship offer into a scholarship offer. He was a decorated player, to be sure, but lacked the five-star billing of Julius Randle or the Harrison twins. Nearly halfway through his first season at UK Hawkins still isn’t a household name, but his teammates certainly know who he is.”I honestly couldn’t tell you what he looked like, what his last name was coming in,” Cauley-Stein said. “But he can hoop. I love him to death too. He’s a great guy and he can hoop.”He has proven his ability to his coach as well, playing his way into a regular role even though Hawkins himself expected it to take longer for that to happen. With No. 14/16 UK (11-3, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) set for a matchup at Vanderbilt (8-5, 0-1 SEC) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET, Hawkins has played double-digit minutes in five straight games and 10 of 11 overall. His unselfishness and energy have made him indispensable, particularly on the defensive end, and a fan favorite. UK’s home crowd has so taken to Hawkins that pleas of “Shoooot!” often fill Rupp Arena when he touches the ball and is open. It’s a strange feeling for Hawkins, because he never needed to be told to shoot before he came to college.”It feels like a big echo of somebody telling me to shoot,” Hawkins said. “It’s pretty crazy because I never had that before because in high school I always shot the ball. If I was open I was definitely shooting it.”Hawkins averaged more than 20 points a game during his senior season at Madison Central High School, but his scoring is not the reason why he’s now in the rotation as a college freshman. With so much talent surrounding him, opponents have begun sagging off Hawkins, essentially daring the 6-foot guard to shoot.That’s exactly what Mississippi State did on Wednesday and the crowd reacted by imploring Hawkins to pull the trigger. In fact, his teammates may have even joined the chorus a time or two.”I probably was one of them yelling,” Cauley-Stein said. “To be honest, I was probably one of them yelling for it.”Hawkins, for the most part, resisted the urge to heed those calls.”I kind of wanted to shoot it because I knew I was open, but I just let it go on the side and kept on running the offense,” Hawkins said.In the first eight minutes against the Bulldogs UK launched seven 3-pointers, falling behind 18-8 in the process. The Cats lost sight of their strength inside, so Hawkins decided to pass up his open looks outside. From that point forward, UK outscored Mississippi State 77-55 en route to an 85-63 victory.Nonetheless, his teammates want Hawkins taking his open look.”Personally, I think he should have shot way more,” Cauley-Stein said. “If they’re going to sag off of you, you may as well shoot it and let us rebound it if you’re worried about missing.”Over his last five games, Hawkins is shooting just 1 for 12 from the field, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range. He is shooting 30.8 percent from the field for the season and knows it’s something he needs to work on.”I think it’s kind of a process kind of deal right now because I’ve been shooting a lot of shots lately and most of them haven’t been falling for me, so I got to get my confidence more up and get in the gym and shoot more,” Hawkins said.Though his shooting is a work in progress, it hasn’t affected the rest of his game. No matter whether Hawkins is hitting his shots, missing them or not even taking them, he always brings intensity.”None of this affects Dominique, I don’t know how many people were here, the 23,000, it doesn’t affect him,” assistant coach John Robic said after the Mississippi State game. “But he just — he does what we ask him to do.”What the coaches ask Hawkins to do is play defense and lift the energy of his teammates, both in games and practices. On that front, he’s shooting 100 percent.Take one practice last week for example.With the Cats trying to get through a seemingly interminable stretch of practices during “Camp Cal,” Hawkins cut back door in a scrimmage and Aaron Harrison bounced a pass to him. In one motion, he caught the ball and rose up for a dunk on Marcus Lee that Coach Cal posted on his website and social media.”I didn’t even think I was going to dunk when I went up,” Hawkins said. “I thought I was just going to lay it up. I guess my body wanted me to dunk it or something because I wasn’t thinking about dunking it all.”The scene that followed says everything you need to know about Hawkins’ role on the team and his relationship with teammates. Calipari blew the whistle to stop the scrimmage and the Cats mobbed Hawkins in celebration.”That saved practice for me, to be honest,” Cauley-Stein said. “It got me a little extra juiced to finish out one of Coach’s practices and it was a fun and hyped moment for everybody.”A couple dunks like that in games and everyone will know Dominique Hawkins.