Tuesday, May 29, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Basketball is in a renaissance period, with good teams using smaller, more versatile lineups to create mismatches in their favor. Wings are in fashion — put as many long, skilled swingmen on the floor as possible, and a well-coached team can maximize its offensive and defensive potential.
UNR has claimed the last two Mountain West titles and advanced to the 2018 Sweet 16 by embracing a wing-heavy, positionless approach.
At the other end of the spectrum, UNLV struggled to get production from its wing players in 2017-18. By playing two true big men most of the time, along with two undersized guards in the backcourt, the Rebels had trouble matching up with UNR’s wave of 6-foot-6 shooters.
The problem was rooted in UNLV’s personnel, as there weren’t enough players on the roster capable of playing that kind of modern basketball. That’s why head coach Marvin Menzies has made the wing positions a priority on the recruiting trail, bringing in three shooting guards/small forwards as part of the 2018 recruiting class.
Bryce Hamilton is the most highly-regarded of the three signees. A 6-foot-5 shooting guard from Pasadena, Calif., Hamilton averaged 24.4 points per game while leading his high school team to a berth in the California state championship game.
Post scoring is a given under Menzies, and returning forwards Shakur Juiston and Tervell Beck should produce in the paint. With no proven options on the wing, however, there will be a lot of playing time available for a freshman who can create and put the ball in the basket. And that just happens to be Hamilton’s specialty.
Hamilton is not an explosive athlete, but he was rated as the No. 71 recruit in the country because of his high skill level. As a senior at Pasadena last year, Hamilton was clearly the man, often tasked with attacking set defenses off the dribble and making things happen.
Hamilton made it work because he’s a three-level scorer who is comfortable taking every kind of shot in the book. And more importantly, he knows how to create them with ball-handling, footwork and guile.
His ball-handling is excellent for a wing. He uses crossovers and change-of-direction dribbles to get past primary defenders with ease, and once he gets going downhill, he instinctually slices through space and gets to the rim. He doesn’t do it with obvious, explosive athleticism, but his feel for driving through defenses is elite:
Pasadena’s offense was constructed entirely around putting the ball in Hamilton’s hands and letting him create, so defenses responded by focusing on him and packing the paint. Hamilton’s game is polished beyond his years, however, and as an emerging scholar in the lost art of the mid-range game, he uses tremendous footwork to get defenders off-balance and get to his spot.
Once he finds a pocket of space inside the defense, he is quick to rise for 16-footers. Hamilton gets max elevation on his jump shot, which gives him added arc on his shot from the mid-range area, and his stroke is compact and clean:
The first clip in that video was textbook footwork, and UNLV didn’t have a single player on its roster capable of creating that kind of space off the dribble last season. Hamilton immediately upgrades that aspect of the offense.
Mid-range is not usually an efficient shot, but there are still circumstances when it can be a weapon in isolation situations (late-game, end-of-shot clock, favorable matchups, etc.). Hamilton is so good at it, and creates good looks so consistently, that he should keep it in his arsenal for situations when the Rebels need a bucket.
Hamilton shot fairly well from 3-point range in the games I watched (8-of-21 in five contests), but those numbers aren’t truly indicative of his shooting ability because few of them were open looks. Because Hamilton had to create so much offense, many of his 3-pointers came off the dribble, with a defender contesting tightly. When he gets into a college system, he should see more efficient catch-and-shoot opportunities:
Hamilton’s tendency to rise as high as possible on his jump shot helps him in the mid-range, but it may be hindering his long-distance jumper. Again, that may be a result of shooting so many contested 3’s, but sometimes it almost appears he holds the ball a fraction too long and shoots on the way down, which gives the appearance of a hitch in his mechanics. But it’s working for him now, and he projects as a good 3-point shooter going forward.
Another area where Hamilton’s innate feel for scoring is obvious is in the way he uses picks. Pasadena often set ball screens for Hamilton at the top of the key, and he excelled at rubbing his man off the pick and either shifting into downhill attack mode or sizing up the switch before making his move:
I didn’t see Hamilton get out into transition a lot, probably because of his team situation. Pasadena wasn’t a talentless team (like Brandon McCoy’s high school squad a year ago), but Hamilton was the biggest and most athletic player, and therefore his coach often had him stationed under the basket on defense. That limited Hamilton’s fast-break opportunities and led to most of his shots coming against set defenses and packed lanes in halfcourt situations, which makes his offensive numbers even more impressive.
Hamilton wasn’t a facilitator at Pasadena, but he wasn’t a ball hog, either. While he forced a handful of difficult shots per game, he also showed enough vision to dish to open teammates when given the opportunity:
At the very least, Hamilton showed he has the ability to spot open teammates and complete rudimentary passes when the situation presents itself. If he’s going to have the ball in his hands as a creator at the college level, however, he’ll have to work to become a more creative passer.
Where Hamilton tended to get in trouble offensively was by dribbling into crowded areas. While his role was to attack in the halfcourt and warp the defense, there were too many plays where Hamilton put his head down and tried to dribble through three or four defenders in tight spaces:
It’s easy to say Hamilton won’t have to do so much at the college level and will therefore cut down on those plays, but bad habits can be hard to break. Expect Hamilton to commit his share of turnovers, forced shots and offensive fouls early in his career before he learns how to let the game come to him.
Evaluating Hamilton’s offensive skill set was easy, as the ball was in his hands a lot in high school. At the other end of the court, there is less video to show his defensive ability.
Pasadena played a lot of 2-3 zone defense in the games I watched, and because Hamilton was the tallest player on the team, he was often parked under the basket and tasked with defending the rim. He did not appear to embrace that role, and, to put it nicely, usually seemed to use defensive possessions as an opportunity to rest.
His passive approach on that end may be somewhat understandable — he played a ton of minutes and was asked to carry the offensive load, which takes a lot of energy. But the resulting passivity on defense allowed inferior opponents to beat him off the dribble and out-work him for rebounding position on a regular basis:
Obviously, Hamilton isn’t going to be defending the paint at UNLV (Marvin Menzies recruits waves of big men to handle that). But I do think it’s likely Hamilton will have to be coached up on the finer points of team defense. Until he gets his feet wet, expect freshman mistakes at that end of the court.
And while Hamilton’s game is not based on athleticism, it is fair to point out that he seemed to struggle the most against high school teams with long, athletic big men in the paint. Five-star Class of 2019 center Onyeka Okongwu consistently blocked and bothered Hamilton around the rim, and other teams had success by walling off the restricted area and forcing him to finish with in-between shots.
Hamilton isn’t the type of player that is going to rise up for dunks in heavy traffic. He’s a below-the-rim type of finisher who mainly uses skill and guile to score creatively when confronted by shot-blocking threats:
The skill set is there for Hamilton to play right away. Aside from sophomore guard Amauri Hardy, there probably won’t be another player on the 2018-19 roster capable of creating shots the way Hamilton can. He fills an important role on the team, and the Rebels need more players like him going forward.
Because of his ability to put points on the board, Hamilton will likely find himself in the starting lineup when UNLV opens the season. In the long term, he and Hardy will give UNLV a pair of 4-star guards who excel at creating off dribble and attacking the defense, and they could emerge as one of the Mountain West’s top backcourts in 2019 and 2020.
Editor’s Note: The Sun’s Mike Grimala will break down each new incoming recruit from UNLV's 2018 class.