Last fall, an assistant coach from East Carolina sat in the Independence High basketball office, chatting with 6-foot-10 center Justyn Hamilton. He told the 16-year-old junior he felt sorry for Patriots boys’ coach Preston Davis.
“He’s like, ‘Coach Davis is not going to reap the benefits of you reaching your full potential,’ ” Davis recalled Friday night after an 86-59 win against Myers Park. “I think he feels, like most college coaches do, that Justyn’s best days are going to be down the road.”
Hamilton, a slender 185 pounds, is ranked No. 14 in the N.C. class of 2017 by the Phenom Hoop Report, which tracks recruits statewide. He has scholarship offers from College of Charleston, East Tennessee State, High Point, North Florida, UNC Greensboro and Virginia Commonwealth. He’s received interest from East Carolina, Georgia, Syracuse, Temple and Virginia.
This summer, when he’s playing on the Nike circuit with the Charlotte-based Team United travel program, coaches from those colleges promised they will watch him often to monitor his progress. The message, Davis believes, is that Hamilton, who turns 17 March 29, is on the cusp of becoming an elite national recruit. He believes his player’s size and rapidly developing skill set are the major reasons why.
“If he gets the ball in the middle of a zone, he’ll kick it out to our shooters,” Davis said. “He can knock down shots. When teams press us, I have him come up and help our guards. If he gets the ball in the middle, he has the freedom to bring the ball up.”
Earlier this season, Hamilton stole a pass near his basket that would have led to an East Mecklenburg layup. In the same sequence, he dribbled the length of the court and led the Patriots’ break. When he was close to the Eagles’ basket, he elevated and threw down a two-handed dunk over an Eagles player.
“Those plays,” Davis said, “you hardly see from a 6-10 guy, and it shows the ability he has, and why a lot of high majors are interested.”
As a sophomore, Hamilton averaged 2.9 points and 3.3 rebounds. Last summer, he was invited by USA Basketball to try out for a Junior National team after a strong summer with Team United. This season, he’s averaging 8.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 blocks. In Friday’s win against Myers Park, he had nine points, 11 rebounds and six blocks.
“He’s definitely much improved from last year,” Mustangs coach Wes Helper said. “One of his biggest assets is the way he protects the rim. It’s tough to score when you’ve got a 6-10 kid in there with a 7-foot wingspan.
“With that type of size, you’re going to draw a lot of attention. The other thing that impressed me was that he caught balls in the middle of our zone and knocked down a couple of jump shots. It’s scary we’ll have to put up with him for one more year.”
Hamilton said he learned a lot in Colorado playing with elite recruits like Jason Tatum, a Duke recruit ranked No. 2 nationally by ESPN, and Josh Jackson, the No. 3 recruit in the national rankings.
“I learned to hustle and to work,” Hamilton said. “And after that (experience), the game slowed down for me. I realized I’m nowhere near close to where I need to be. There’s more work I can put in. It motivated me. It really did. My work ethic changed.
“Every time I step on the court now, I push myself, even when I’m tired. I try to get every rebound, every block, and I’m a whole lot less lazy.”
Coach Davis is pushing Hamilton to get stronger (Hamilton’s in the Patriots’ weight-training classes) and to be more aggressive. He said Hamilton is poised for a strong junior playoff push and what he calls “a spectacular senior season.”
Davis said he knows the East Carolina coach is right: He’ll never see the best of Justyn Hamilton while at Independence.
“He has a chance to have a really great career, depending on how he works,” Davis said. “It sounds crazy, but being 6-10 and having that skill set, you never know, but we could be looking at a true pro right now.
“Think about a guy like (7-foot Gastonia native) Hassan Whitesides (of the Miami Heat). In high school, he was not much of the major player that he is now, and he continued to get better and better and better. Justyn has the potential to do that. I don’t know if he’ll get there. I hope he does, but I tell him all the time, it’s about how hard he works. It’s really up to him.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr