In this busy Kentucky basketball offseason with so many late additions to the roster, four-star recruit Bryce Hopkins has been a forgotten man of sorts.
Much of the attention the past few months has been on the construction of John Calipari’s new backcourt, with the arrival of three instant-impact transfer guards and the late signing of five-star playmaker TyTy Washington.
More recently, there was the low-key announcement that Keion Brooks — a similarly positioned player as Hopkins — would return for his third season as a Wildcat, a decision that could lessen Hopkins’ expected impact in his freshman year.
Of course, the recruiting rankings say Hopkins is the least touted of Calipari’s latest class. Washington and power forward Daimion Collins — the other two UK signees — are both consensus top-15 recruits nationally. Hopkins — a 6-foot-7, 220-pound wing from the Chicago area — is No. 36 on that list.
So, what can Kentucky fans expect from Hopkins in year one?
“Anything that Coach Cal wants me to bring to the table,” he said matter-of-factly Thursday.
That’s the right attitude for a UK newcomer.
Hopkins was speaking from South Oldham High School, the latest stop on UK’s basketball camp tour this month and the first real chance for most of these Wildcats to connect with fans across the state.
In the camp setting, it’s fun and games, making sure the kids have a good time.
Once the games begin, it’ll obviously be different. And Hopkins has a good idea of what it is Calipari will want him to bring to the court.
“He’s really said he wants me to bring my tough grittiness that I bring from Chicago,” he said. “Stuff like that. So I’m going to be playing hard, playing good defense. …
“Growing up, nothing was ever handed to me. My dad instilled in me to just be tough and take what you want. Coach Cal didn’t guarantee me anything when I came here. He just said I’m going to have to take what I need. And that’s what I came here to do. So, looking forward to it.”
Ask around about Hopkins, and “tough” is usually one of the first words you hear.
“Bryce imposes his physicality on other players,” his high school coach, Staunton Peck, told the Herald-Leader. “Guys bounce off of Bryce. Bryce is not the kind of guy who doesn’t finish through contact or shies away from contact. I think, in many ways, part of Bryce’s game is like an ‘old man’ game, where he just has that old-man, full-body strength.
“I’m not a basketball guru, but I’ve seen a lot of high school basketball players over the past couple of years, and I don’t think anybody has been even close to as physically imposing as Bryce is.”
That might be what he’s asked to do at the beginning — provide a gritty, physical brand of basketball that was often missing from last season’s 9-16 team — but that’s not all Hopkins can be. And he came to Kentucky expecting to be much more.
This past season was shortened in Illinois due to COVID-19, but Hopkins was ultimately named the MaxPreps.com state player of the year after averaging 24.4 points, 12.5 rebounds and about three assists per game. He led Fenwick School to a 13-3 record and an 11-1 showing in the ultra-competitive Chicago Catholic League.
Hopkins played point guard at times, center at times. He got teammates involved. He emerged as a veteran leader. Others fed off his confidence. Peck said he shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. Offensively, he can play on the perimeter. Defensively, his coach said he has the length, toughness and versatility to guard opposing centers in college.
“He can pretty much do it all,” Peck said. “I think he’s a modern basketball player in terms of being positionless.”
From Louisville to Kentucky
This time last year, Hopkins wasn’t even being recruited by Kentucky.
There was a good reason for that. He was committed to Louisville.
Hopkins backed out of that pledge in August and signed with the Wildcats three months later. With the NCAA banning all official recruiting visits due to COVID-19, he wasn’t allowed to get the full campus treatment from UK’s coaches before committing to the Cats. Instead, he and his family drove from Chicago to Lexington on their own dime. A few weeks later, he picked UK.
“I felt this was the best situation for me,” Hopkins said Thursday. “If I come here and do what I have to do, I know I can get to the next level, with all that Coach Cal has to offer. … It wasn’t anything personal with (Louisville). I just wanted to do what’s best for me, for my dreams — to get to the NBA.”
He comes to Kentucky as part of a team that should be packed with talent, and that could make considerable playing time tough to come by in the early going.
Calipari has talked about playing three-guard lineups, and the UK coach should have several talented options to work with. Brooks will certainly be on the court quite a bit. Jacob Toppin and Lance Ware could be in for breakout seasons, and Collins and Oscar Tshiebwe will surely get plenty of run.
Hopkins isn’t backing down from the competition, however. And, even if it takes the UK freshman a bit to find his footing, his former coach doesn’t expect him to get discouraged.
Peck said Hopkins didn’t play much in his early days at Fenwick, a top program in the basketball-rich Chicago area. There were always rumors that he might transfer elsewhere for more guaranteed playing time. Then, once he developed into a nationally known recruit, those rumors had him jumping ship to a big-time prep school that played a national schedule.
Every time he heard something like that, Peck would go straight to Hopkins’ family.
Every time he did, he’d get the same answer. “Relax,” was the tone of that feedback. “Bryce isn’t going anywhere.” Obviously, they were true to their word.
“His parents’ response wasn’t, ‘Hey, maybe we should go somewhere else.’ The response was, ‘You need to work harder.’ So I think that attitude and that mindset is only going to help him succeed in whatever he’s asked to do at Kentucky,” Peck said. “And Bryce is not going to show up at Kentucky and just take over the world. I don’t think that happens for anybody. But he has the support system and experience where his response to adversity is not giving up or moving on. It’s just working harder and pushing through adversity to become stronger.
“So, to me, that’s one of the biggest strengths that Kentucky is going to get: a guy who’s willing to fail. And failure is fine, because that’s going to motivate him to get better.”
Toward the end of Hopkins’ first meeting with reporters from around the state Thursday, teammate Lance Ware joined the gaggle. Just a few minutes earlier, Hopkins said Ware had been like a “big brother” to him in his first couple of weeks on campus, showing him the ropes and answering his questions.
Ware smiled and playfully nodded along with Hopkins’ responses to reporters. When there were no more questions, Ware grabbed a microphone and asked his own.
“How does this feel being your first official college interview?”
The freshman grinned nervously.
“It’s a little nerve-racking with all the cameras,” Hopkins acknowledged. “But you get used to it here.”