By Chris Dortch
A 7-foot snowboarder from the mountains of Utah by way of the Iowa cornfields has come to the bayou to help return LSU basketball to prominence.
Interested yet? Justin Hamilton’s story is nothing if not interesting, starting with his college choice. His father was on BYU’s 1984 national championship football team and his mother played volleyball for the school, and of course Hamilton grew up following the Cougars. But when it came time to choosing a place to play basketball, Hamilton never even considered BYU.
“I just wanted to get away from home and pursue other options,” Hamilton said.
Actually, Hamilton’s college options were limited. He grew up on a snowboard in the winter and a skateboard in the summer and didn’t start playing basketball in earnest until his sophomore season at Lone Peak High School in Pine Valley, Utah. Heading into his senior year, Hamilton’s choices were a handful of West Coast Conference schools and Weber State. Power conference programs didn’t seem interested.
That changed one summer day in 2007 when Iowa State assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger was at an AAU tournament in California. The game scheduled before the one he was there to watch went into overtime.
“It was the last few minutes of the game,” said Otzelberger, who’s still at Iowa State, though working for a different boss after Greg McDermott left for Creighton and was replaced by Fred Hoiberg. “Justin’s team was down, but he was just sprinting back and forth across the floor. You don’t see a lot of kids in AAU sprinting the floor at the end of the game. So I filed that away in my memory bank, even though Justin was only 205 or 210 pounds at the time.”
During a home visit that fall, Otzelberger and McDermott heard about how snowboarding, not basketball, had occupied much of Hamilton’s youth.
“We thought with his work ethic, there may be some upside there,” Otzelberger said. “But at 210 pounds, it wasn’t going to happen. I remember having a conversation with Justin and his dad about his weight. They said, ‘Just trust us. It’ll work itself out.’ ”
Hamilton showed up for his freshman season at Iowa State at 255 pounds.
“It was steady diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, protein shakes, and some hard work,” Otzelberger said. “That was a testament to how much he wanted it.”
Hamilton started 18 games as a freshman and 31 the next season, but he was overshadowed by Craig Brackins, a future first-round NBA draft pick. Hamilton eventually decided he wanted a fresh start at another school.
“At Iowa State, I was used a certain way,” Hamilton said. “I knew I could do more than what they asked me to do.”
LSU coach Trent Johnson thought that, too. First at Nevada (Nick Fazekas) and later at Stanford (Brook and Robin Lopez), Johnson loved to take advantage of big men with multiple skills. He thought Hamilton was perfect for his system. After Iowa State granted Hamilton his release and he was free to speak with other coaches, Johnson was the first to call.
“When he was at Iowa State, he rebounded and set a lot of screens,” Johnson said. “He wasn’t the focal point of the offense going through him. That’s no disrespect for their system. I have the utmost respect for coach McDermott. But Justin knew coming here we were going to go through him.
“For the first time in his basketball career, he was going to be asked to score, and feed from the post. Defensively, on the back line, he was a guy we could build our defense around, not just from the standpoint of blocking shots but as a guy who can take charges.”
“I remembered coach Johnson from Stanford,” Hamilton said. “When he came for an in-home visit, I felt really comfortable with him. We just hit it off.”
If Hamilton was looking for a program that would allow him to showcase his skills, LSU was the place. After winning the SEC’s Western Division and overall championship in 2008-09, his first season in Baton Rouge, Johnson, caught without his usual battery of big men, endured consecutive 20-loss seasons and sixth-place Western Division finishes.
“Not to have a post presence for two years, that was tough,” Johnson said. “It was hard for Justin to sit out [his redshirt season in 2010-11]. Hard for him and for me.”
Hamilton remembers the day he first rolled into Baton Rouge.
“I literally live in a canyon [with a view of the Rocky Mountains],” Hamilton said. “It Baton Rouge, it’s just flat. And during the summer, the heat is unbearable. I’d never been in a place where there’s 100 percent humidity. It was a challenge to get used to that.”
Hamilton quickly learned to appreciate the Southern charm of his new home, and he knew he had made a good decision about his choice of schools (Virginia and UCLA were also considered). He used his redshirt year to get stronger and work with the LSU staff on his perimeter skills. The Tigers’ trip to Italy last summer marked the first time Hamilton could compete with his new teammates.
“When I got here, I knew we had a great group of guys,” Hamilton said. “But I could see we needed better ball movement. The trip to Italy was a test trial to see how well I would fit in. It was an opportunity to show everybody that I could make plays and hit shots.
“As it turned out, we moved the ball, played well [6-0] and learned a lot about ourselves.”
Hamilton has carried his strong play in Italy over to this season. He’s leading the Tigers in scoring (12.3 ppg), rebounding (6.9 rpg), blocked shots (21), field-goal percentage (.512) and free throws made (44) and attempted (58). After a slow start that included consecutive losses to Coastal Carolina and Northwestern, LSU won 10 of its next 11, including a convincing victory over then 10th-ranked Marquette that Hamilton helped secure with eight consecutive free throws in the final 55 seconds.
Together with freshman Johnny O’Bryant, Hamilton has given Johnson a twin towers frontcourt the likes of which he hasn’t coached since he had the Lopez twins at Stanford.
“We ran a double low with Brook and Robin, and we’re doing the same thing with Justin and Johnny,” Johnson said. “Justin has shown an ability to step out to shoot the 3, so we’ve been able to move him around. If we think we have an advantage in the post, we’ll put him in the post. If we think we have an advantage on the perimeter, we’ll bring him out.
“Justin can step out there to set an on-ball [screen] and pick and pop or pick and roll. He’s got that kind of versatility.”
Hamilton credits his early fondness for riding boards at high rates of speed—whether on snow or pavement—with helping him become an atypical post player.
“As a snowboarder or skateboarder, I developed pretty good feet,” Hamilton said. “It was just a matter of transforming that to the basketball court. Those sports helped me become more coordinated; if you don’t have good feet, you’re going to fall pretty hard.
“I realized in high school a lot of guys my size weren’t that mobile. It’s funny how it worked out, but snowboarding and skateboarding ended up giving me an advantage in basketball.”