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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J.J. Watt, the Houston Texans all-time leader in sacks (96.0), is entering his ninth season with the franchise ahead of what will certainly be an anomaly year for the NFL. Due to the ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, there is serious doubt that the NFL will be able to play a full 16-game schedule, while others express their concern with the league's inability to play any form of football come the fall of 2020.

There are a lot of uncertainties surrounding the league this coming season, which is becoming a theme for Watt's future in Houston.

The 31-year-old defensive end has two years remaining on his six-year, $100 million contract extension he signed in September of 2014. But as he prepares to embark on another year with the Texans through Zoom meetings with his teammates, a new contract is not on Watt's priority list.

"No, I don't think that's necessary," Watt told Houston reporters on Wednesday. "I fully understand and respect the situation that I'm in at the moment, and what's happened in the past few years, so I'm not gonna sit here and demand anything. I think if I went back and asked for an extension or more money, I think that would be the wrong move. I am just going out there to prove my worth and to help this team win games."

As of now, it is unsure what the future holds for Watt's career with the Texans. Should management re-sign the three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner (2012, 2014 & 2015), the question becomes: How much is Watt worth as he enters the twilight of his career? It's the subject that will be the driving force when discussing Watt's future with the team, and the segment that sparked a trade rumor of his departure to the Chicago Bears.

Although his on-field production remains extremely valuable, Watt has had a difficult time trying to stay healthy. Since 2016, he has missed 32 out of a possible 64 games due to an abundance of injuries. In 2019, Watt missed half of the season after suffering a torn pectoral during the Texans' 27-24 victory over the then-Oakland Raiders.

"My goal for every season is to do whatever possible to help this team win, and number one, that means staying healthy," he said. "You have to be on the field in order to help the team win, and then it is to play at the peak physical level I am capable of. It is just making sure I am in the best possible shape to perform that way."

Contract and injuries aside, the five-time Pro-Bowler is excited about his opportunity to play under new defensive coordinator, Anthony Weaver. During his introductory press conference two weeks ago, Weaver said Watt will remain the focal point for the Texans' defense in 2020, but acknowledged getting the future Hall of Famer through 16 games remains a hurdle.

After four seasons serving as Houston's defensive line coach, the Texans promoted Weaver to defensive coordinator in January to replace Romeo Crennel.

"I love [Anthony] Weaver... I think that he has a great mixture of knowledge of the game, experience, but also personality to be able to handle the players in the room," Watt said. "To be able to inject some fun and excitement into meetings, practice and everything, all while bringing the knowledge necessary to run a good defense."

Under the guidance of a new defensive coordinator, Weaver may be just the coach to help Watt rekindle the potential that made him an All-Pro defensive end. Regardless of the uncertainties surrounding his future at the conclusion of his contract, Watt is hoping he will have the opportunity to finish his career where it started — in Houston.

"That is a goal of mine, and this city [Houston] has been incredible to me since I got here," Watt said. "I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I certainly hope that's the case."

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