EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW

Houston Cougars: Nate Hinton on declaring for the draft, "It's every kid's dream"

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On a Sunday afternoon in early March marked the last time Nate Hinton departed the floor of the Fertitta Center. The Houston Cougars clinched their second consecutive American Athletic Conference regular-season title in a 64-57 victory over the Memphis Tigers. While shooting 60% from the field, Hinton helped the Cougars secure the second seed ahead of the conference tournament with 13 points, five rebounds and four steals in 29 minutes.

Four days later, Hinton and the Cougars' tournament season came to an abrupt end when the AAC and the NCAA announced the cancellation of all winter and spring championship games amid in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly a month after his final game, Hinton announced his decision to declare for the 2020 NBA Draft while maintaining his remaining two years of college eligibility via Twitter.

"At the end of the season, coach [Kelvin Sampson] asked me what I wanted to do, and at the time I really did not know," Hinton told Houston SportsMap. "Obviously, it's every kid's dream to have that opportunity to go to the NBA, but I never expected the opportunity to be like this. After talking it over with coach, my parents and praying about it, I decided to make that move and test the waters."

The uncertainty surrounding this year's draft played an immense role in Hinton's decision to test the NBA while maintaining his college eligibility. With the league calendar in limbo due to its suspension, it is highly doubtful that the draft will go on as scheduled for June 25 inside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. At the moment, the NBA has prohibited all teams from holding in-person workouts and watching new videos of all draft prospects. The strict pre-draft guidelines set in place may leave Hinton at a disadvantage from hearing his name called by the commissioner.

"We are living in a different time right now with the Coronavirus going around, and we are stuck playing the waiting game just to see what the NBA is going to do," he said. "I am 100 percent confident in my ability and what I can bring to the table. But the idea of me not knowing if or when I will have a chance to get in front of a team — it's all about being smart and safe with my decision to enter the draft this year."

His hunger. His drive. His intensity. His work ethic. It's the four intangibles of Hinton's game he believes can translate to success on the next level, and what separates him from the rest of the draft prospects in this year's class.



Hinton is coming off his most successful campaign with the Cougars. During the 2019-20 season, he started all 31 games played and averaged a career-best 10.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. With eight double-doubles on the year, the 6'4 sophomore guard received second-team All-American Athletic Conference honors and first-team NABC All-District 24 recognition — as Houston finished the year with a 23-8 (13-5) record.

"It's the NBA, and whoever wants to take that chance on me — I would be forever grateful," he said. "My relentlessness on the glass and being able to play both ends of the floor, I believe the intangibles of my game translate well on the next level."

One of the most significant influencers who encourage Hinton's decision was Cougars' head coach, Kelvin Sampson. Since taking over the program in the spring of 2014, the two-time American Athletic Conference Coach of the Year winner (2018 & 2019) has helped several players reach the pinnacle of professional basketball. Most recently, former UH stars Galen Robinson Jr (Austin Spurs) and Armoni Brooks (College Park Skyhawks), who are currently playing professionally in the NBA G League.

Under his stewardship over the past two seasons, the lessons coach Sampson instilled in Hinton goes far beyond the boundaries of the court.

"He [coach Sampson] was encouraging throughout the process and was the one who gave me the confidence to enter my name in the draft," Hinton said. "If there is anything I can take from coach, it would be his two famous words: attitude and effort. In everything that you do, your attitude and effort are the two things you can always control. That and his competitive nature on a consistent basis."

The preparation to fulfill a lifelong dream will take place 20 miles away from Charlotte in his hometown of Gastonia, N.C. Adding to the burden of preparing for the draft, Hinton has endured the challenges of finishing the spring semester online, similar to millions of college students across the country.

"I haven't been home since June, and in the midst of everything that is going on, I am taking this time to enjoy my family," Hinton said. "In Houston, I am a long way from home and if it wasn't for this virus, I would not have had the chance to go home until May. So I am not taking this time for granted. "

Competing every day at the highest level with the expectation of hard work is the culture of UH Basketball Hinton will rely heavily upon should his collegiate career come to an end. In an event where he does return to the floor of the Fertitta Center draped in the Cougars' red, white and black, the experience of going through the NBA draft process is a foundation Hinton is looking forward to building upon for both himself and the program ahead of the 2020-21 season.

"It's just a blessing for me to have this opportunity to get looks from teams in the league," Hinton said. "I will not take this opportunity lightly nor this experience. Whatever happens, I plan to take what they give me and move on from there."

"It is also a great opportunity to bring more excitement to the team and help push the program forward. Everybody's goal is to keep getting better and ultimately get to the NBA. The more players you have that has gotten to that next level, then more players would like to come and play for the program knowing that the opportunity is lodged in front of them."

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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