One on One with Chris Dortch: Scotty Hopson
Fans and pundits disappointed or puzzled by Tennessee’s inconsistency this season don’t have Scotty Hopson to kick around anymore. The junior has played the best basketball of his career since late December, and he’s done it by adopting an atypical mindset.
Rather than try to impress NBA scouts, a tactic that has ruined the season of many a promising team when its star player becomes more concerned with himself than his team, Hopson has taken the opposite approach.
“I can’t even worry with [the NBA] right now,” Hopson said. “That’s one reason why I’m playing better, because I’m thinking less about the NBA. At the end of the day, you never know what tomorrow brings. So why not go all out for that day? Why not stay in the present?”
Great point. Other players who aren’t in the one-and-done category should pay attention. Rather than force the action to try and show what he can do, or hold back to conceal what he can’t, Hopson is just playing his backside off. That the Vols have been all over the map this season—try beating Villanova and Pittsburgh at neutral sites but losing seven home games—can’t be dropped on Hopson’s doorstep.
The conventional wisdom used to be that, as Hopson went, so went the Vols: Hopson scores 19 points, Tennessee beats Villanova. Hopson scores 29, Tennessee beats Pitt. Hopson scores seven, Tennessee loses to Oakland. Hopson scores eight, Tennessee loses to USC.
That USC game was the dropping off point for Hopson. Since then, he’s scored in double figures in 17 straight games, averaged 18.9 points (19.4 in Southeastern Conference games only) and shot 42 percent from the three-point line. Armed with an attack-the-rim mentality, Hopson has thrived. And some of the wicked slams he’s throw down—consult YouTube for that little number against South Carolina that CBS has chosen as a candidate for national dunk of the year—have next level written all over them.
Not that Hopson is thinking next level. Not at the moment, anyway.
Hopson has long been an easy target for critics because he came to Tennessee as a five-star prospect and McDonald’s All-American. Though much of his first two seasons he willingly deferred to such veteran players as Tyler Smith, Wayne Chism and J.P. Prince, Hopson was singled out for disappearing in games, taking plays off, not being tough enough.
“Scotty has always had to beat down the title of ‘he’s soft,’ ” Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. “And admittedly he’s not naturally aggressive and wasn’t somebody who sought out contact, or liked contact. But we’ve talked a lot about him learning to enjoy and welcome the physicality of the game.
“Scotty has worked hard on his body, and now he’s been able to absorb contact and get to the rim. You look at his physique now. He came here a boy, and now he’s a man.”
Another problem for Hopson early in his career was living up to his advance billing. The same system that heralded him as a can’t-miss superstar and helped him earn a scholarship to a power conference school also made it tough for him to develop at his own pace.
“Sometimes when kids are labeled out of high school as a McDonald’s All-American, people just automatically assume they’re going to come into college basketball and dominate,” Tennessee assistant coach Steve Forbes said. “But that’s not always the case. We knew Scotty had come from a smaller high school, had played against lesser competition in high school, and it was going to be an adjustment for him play at this level. We knew he had all the skills and all the talent to do it, but it was going to be a process.
“Unfortunately, this day and age, people just aren’t very patient. Everybody wants it now. Kids included. But he’s been patient and he’s listened to our coaching. There have been some ups and downs with him. We’ve had our frustrations; he’s had his, I’m sure. But I think he’s a good example of a guy who’s stuck with the process, kept working and it, and it’s starting to show. In his junior year, he is that type of player everybody thought he would be.”
Even Hopson admits he took a step backward his first two seasons. But he sees that as part of the transition from high school to college every player makes.
“In high school, I was the man on my team, the guy, the best player,” Hopson said. “Then in college, I stepped back my freshman and sophomore years. But I learned a lot about leadership from the guys ahead of me. I looked at the positive things they did. It might have taken a while, but now I’m in a position where I have to assume a leadership role. I have to step up and command things. And I’m going to work hard for everything I get.”
Hopson gained even greater enlightenment last summer after he was chosen to the USA Basketball Select Team, a group of 20 college players whose job it was to spar against Mike Krzyzewski’s USA National Team as it prepared for the FIBA World Championships, where it won the gold medal.
“Being out there with some of the greatest players in the NBA, it opened my mind to how hard I do need to work, how much better I need to get if I want to make it to the next level,” Hopson said. “Those guys were the elite of the elite, and Kobe and LeBron weren’t even there.”
After the training camp was over, Hopson filed away the lessons learned and then focused on Tennessee’s season. Personally, the results have been satisfying. Not so for the team, which has endured Pearl’s eight-game suspension and enough home-court, one-point and overtime losses to place the Vols’ string of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances under Pearl (five) in jeopardy.
“It has been frustrating,” Hopson said. “We try to keep it cohesive, keep it working as a team and focus on one goal. Each and every one of us wants the same thing. Sometimes we don’t do the individual things you need to win. But if each of us is accountable, if we all try to take the opportunity to make plays and also try to make our teammates better, we’ll be fine.”
As for Hopson, these last few months have proven that he’s worthy of next-level consideration. It speaks to his character that he hasn’t made that his primary focus.
“Scotty has made a progression the way it used to be done,” Pearl said. “He played as a freshman, improved as a sophomore, and now he’s become a star as a junior. But because the expectations were so high, he’s had to answer questions about his ability, his toughness.
“He’s answered those questions this season, so much so that, I think if he were to come back next year, he would be a [national] player of the year candidate. That’s how far he’s come.”