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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After splitting the first two games of the series, including the extra-inning affair on Saturday, the Astros looked to defeat the Angels on Saturday to secure the series win and leave Los Angeles with a winning record. On the mound were two pitchers looking to shrug off bad debuts to the season. Here is how the game went on Sunday afternoon:

Final Score (11 innings): Astros 6, Angels 5.

Record: 5-4, first in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Blake Taylor (1-0, 0.00 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Jacob Barnes (0-2, 3.86 ERA).

James walks his way into trouble

After a disastrous start to his pitching season where he was unable to record an out, Shohei Ohtani was able to sit down the Astros 1-2-3 on just eight pitches in the top of the first. However, Houston would take advantage of his struggling command in the top of the second, working three straight walks to load the bases with no outs. They then would get two more walks with two outs to grab an early 2-0 lead and end Ohtani's day early yet again.

Meanwhile, on the mound for Houston was Josh James. He, too, allowed some walks but was able to work around them in the first two innings, erasing two in the bottom of the first and one in the second for two scoreless innings.

That changed in the third when he would walk the bases loaded with two outs before Albert Pujols continued his nearly twenty-year reign of being a thorn in Houston's side, hitting a grand slam, Los Angeles' first hit of the day, to put the Angels up 4-2. James would get the final out of the third, but that would conclude his day, making it two straight starts he would be unable to reach the fourth inning. His final line: 3.0 IP, 1 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 6 BB, 4K, 1 HR.

Valdez impresses as Bregman makes it a one-run game in the seventh

Framber Valdez was first out of Houston' bullpen, likely to try and eat up several innings. He would accomplish that mission, getting through the next three innings scoreless, holding the 4-2 score. It remained locked on that score despite Houston getting runners on base in each of those innings, as they would struggle to turn players on base into runs yet again in this series.

Alex Bregman gave the Astros a spark in the top of the seventh, leading off the inning with a solo home run to straightaway center to make it a one-run game. Valdez returned for yet another inning, another scoreless frame to keep it 4-3 going to the eighth.

Reddick ties it in the ninth, Astros win in extras

Houston would threaten to tie in the top of the eighth, getting a pinch-hitting Carlos Correa to third base after a single to leadoff the inning, but would be unable to score him, leaving it at 4-3. Valdez would record another scoreless inning in the bottom of the eighth, giving the Astros one more chance to tie or go ahead in the top of the ninth.

Michael Brantley led off the inning with a double and was pinch-run by Myles Straw, who would score the tying run on an RBI-single by Josh Reddick, but the Angels would hold the Astros there. Valdez remained in the game trying to push extra innings and would do so, erasing a leadoff walk.

Kyle Tucker started the top of the tenth on second base and moved to third on a sac fly by Carlos Correa to start the inning before scoring on another sac fly, this time from pinch-hitting Garrett Stubbs to give Houston a 5-4 lead. Valdez, well above his comfortable pitch count, was still on the mound in the bottom of the tenth, and allowed his first run, though unearned, on a leadoff RBI-single to tie the game again at 5-5. He would get one more out before Houston moved to another reliever, bringing in Andre Scrubb.

After an intentional walk to Albert Pujols, Scrubb would walk the bases loaded before getting a popout, then Houston would turn to Blake Taylor. Taylor would come through, getting a big strikeout to send the game to the eleventh. Springer started on second in the top of the inning and would score and put the Astros back in front on a one-out RBI-single by Alex Bregman. In the bottom half, Taylor would get through the inning, giving Houston the win and series victory.

Up Next: The Astros will have a day off tomorrow before picking up a three-game set with the Diamondbacks in Arizona on Tuesday. The opening game of that series will be at 8:10 PM Central. While Arizona is expected to start Madison Bumgarner, the Astros will have to pivot as they had Framber Valdez slated for that start, who made a lengthy appearance out of the bullpen on Sunday.

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