Starring role awaits Coleman Hawkins at Illinois

Starring role awaits Coleman Hawkins at Illinois

CHAMPAIGN — After two years as a role player for a Big Ten title contender, Coleman Hawkins has a starring role at Illinois basketball awaiting him. The lanky 6-foot-10 rising junior forward sees it. He seems to want it, need it.

“I think my time has come,” Hawkins said on Wednesday. “I’ve been here. I’ve seen it all. I’ve seen what it’s like, what it takes to win. I’m definitely ready to handle that.”

But with three days prior to the NCAA’s May 1 deadline to enter the transfer portal and receive immediate eligibility elsewhere, Hawkins didn’t sound 100-percent committed to returning to Illinois. Hawkins — who started 14 games last season for the Big Ten regular-season co-champion Illini and averaged 5.9 points, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists — is working out with the team during offseason workouts and seems likely to return to the Illini given that he was made available to the media on Wednesday afternoon at State Farm Center.

But Hawkins said he hadn’t had a true exit meeting with Illinois head coach Brad Underwood and added that “hopefully that will come soon and figure what the future is out.” Underwood later said he had met with all his players for meetings. The uncertainty of the transfer portal and who could transfer to Illinois seems to leave Hawkins still open-minded about next season. Such is the reality of the new era of college athletics.

“I plan on coming back,” Hawkins said. “But like I said, still got to do the waiting game. Still got to see who’s coming in and still got to meet with everyone and see what the future holds.”

Hawkins, who was one of the Illini’s best players on both ends of the court late in the season, is in line to see a huge increase in role and usage if he does indeed return to Illinois. He is the only Illini who started more than five games last season so far scheduled to return to the team.

With two-time All-American center Kofi Cockburn gone to the pros, the Illini offense could run through Hawkins at times and he could thrive in a more wide-open and fast-paced offense that uses his athleticism in transition and ability to hit threes and take players off the dribble in the halfcourt. Hawkins also could be the Illini’s defensive star due to his versatility, switchability, length and rim-protection ability.

Hawkins actually has a lot of the tools and skills the NBA wants in NBA frontcourt players. And Illinois—which has produced All-Americans in back-to-back seasons—seems to have the spotlight role for him to shine.

“I think kind of being more a scoring threat,” Hawkins said of his role next season. “I think the last two years I have been like [the] energy guy. But I think I can be able to showcase what I truly can do. And, honestly, I think no one’s seen what I can truly do because of what we’ve had and the players we’ve had in the past. With this team, I think I’ll be able to showcase a lot more and bring a lot more to the table and really bring out my true skill set.”

Added Underwood: “He’s a veteran. We need a leader, a good player, a guy that started. These guys are in positions to, as I call it, move up the scouting report and have things that changes for them, and you’ve got to be prepared for that. You’ve got to be prepared when the other team’s trying to stop you and you become a focal point of what you’re trying to do.”

Underwood has pushed Hawkins hard at times because he sees great potential in the California native. He often talks about how Hawkins could be elite defensively, a trait NBA teams value dearly. More than scoring, though, Underwood wants his now-most-experienced player — only five Illini scholarship players are tentatively scheduled to return to the team from last season — to lead what will be a young Illini group that will include three sophomores (wing RJ Melendezwing Luke Goode and post Dain Dainja) and four freshmen (guard skyy clarkwing Ty Rodgersguard Jayden Epps and guard Sencire Harris).

“A big part of that for Coleman is leadership,” Underwood said. “We’ve got a big group of freshmen coming in here and they need guidance. They need someone who’s going to tell them how to do it. He’s a veteran. He’s been around, and we’ll be counting on him.”

Added Hawkins: “It means I’m going to have to kind of lead, kind of guide the freshmen, even the guys who didn’t get a significant amount of minutes. I’m going to have to guide them, show them the way around this program and the way that was shown to me. Try to keep that tradition alive. I’m going to have to lead everybody and just them what this program is about.”

With four scholarships available, Illinois will add to the roster through the transfer portal in the coming months with needs at basically every position: guard, wing and the frontcourt. Though Underwood said Wednesday that he could keep multiple scholarships open during the season for potential mid-year transfers. But even if Illinois adds a frontcourt piece, it’s likely to complement Hawkins, who looks in line to jump from a 19.0 minute per game role player to a 25- to 30-minute per game starring role.

Assuming, he wants it, of course. And it sounds like he does.

“I’m patient with everything, but I think next year can be a really great year for me,” Hawkins said. “I think I can see myself playing at the next level in about a year or two, I hope. That all starts with what I do right now in this offseason. I can’t tell what the future holds, but hopefully, in a year or two, I’ll be able to go and play professionally.”

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