Last season, Washington head coach Mike Hopkins had a roster brimming with experience.
He had three senior starters in David Crisp, Matisse Thybulle and Noah Dickerson. Leading scorer Jaylen Nowell, a sophomore, was a two-year starter. The fourth senior, Dominic Green, was a sharp-shooter off the bench.
The upcoming year will look much different.
The Huskies will have to replace four starters — assuming Nowell remains in the NBA Draft — and 80 percent of their scoring. The veterans Hopkins and the younger players UW so often relied on will be gone.
A top-10 2019 recruiting class that features two five-star prospects in Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels will certainly help. So will some familiarity. Incoming freshmen McDaniels, three-star shooting guard Marcus Tsohonis and four-star point guard RaeQuan Battle all played on the same AAU team. So did Stewart and and leading returning scorer Nahziah Carter.
There is an advantage, Hopkins said, to bringing in players who have shared a court before.
“It’s just built-in chemistry with guys,” he said. “At the end of the day, when you get really talented kids that love to play with each other, I think, and complement each other, I think that’s really cool.
“Isaiah and Jaden both have incredible skill sets that really complement each other and actually just help teams win. The great thing is they both have incredible work ethics. And that’s what I love, their willingness to work and lead and they’re winners.”
The young team will also benefit from a trip to Italy in August. The Huskies will travel to Rome and Florence from August 12-22 to play in four games against Italian Series A teams, and will be permitted to hold 10 practices before departing.
“I think the trip to Italy is going to be a great experience for everybody,” Hopkins said. “Not only culturally but they are going to get credit. They’re taking a class. It will be great for them to see another part of the world that’s an incredible place
“Then obviously bond as a team on the road, play some games, get these guys some game experience, some game reps … get them the opportunity to go out on the court and see what they can do.”
Last season’s UW team, which won the Pac-12 regular season title and played in the NCAA Tournament, had years to build their chemistry. For the revamped Huskies’ roster, that process starts now.
“You’re going to play different lineups,” Hopkins said. “You’re going to give kids opportunities. You’re going to see who’s ready. You’re going to see what you need to work on. You get more of a preview in terms of what we need to be able to go and what we need to do in order to get better as a team, individually and then collectively.”
‘Letting it play out’
Nowell declared for the NBA Draft at the end of March and has offered no indication that he’s going to return to the Huskies. Still, Nowell — NBADraft.net projects him as the 10th pick of the second round — has until Wednesday to officially make that decision.
If he does decide to return, UW will have a scholarship open for him.
“We’re letting it play out,” Hopkins said. “Jaylen is an incredible kid and we’re just so excited for him in regards to what we decides to do. We’re 1000 percent supportive of his dreams and we’re getting a lot of incredible feedback from the NBA.
“But we want to keep a scholarship open for him and if he decided he wanted to (return), it would be an incredible thing. But we’re just excited for him. We just want him to know that he’s a Husky for life and he wants to come back in five days or whatever it is or decided to go to the NBA, we’re 1,000 percent supportive.”
‘It was just really, really special’
When Stewart was in eighth grade, he met Hopkins for the first time. Back then, Hopkins was just beginning to recruit him to Syracuse. The two stayed in contact for years. And when Stewart made his commitment to the Huskies in April, he pointed to his relationship with Hopkins as a major factor.
“I’m a big relationship guy,” Stewart said after his announcement on ESPN. “Relationship plays a major role in my recruitment. He’s a coach I trust to push me harder and help me accomplish my goals.”
Hopkins said Stewart has always been “focused and driven to be great.” There was a time when Stewart wasn’t considered one of the top-10 recruits in the country, and Hopkins knew it put a chip on his shoulder to get there.
“When you’ve known somebody at a young age, it’s so special,” Hopkins said. “To be able to be reunited even though it’s completely across country and for him to to have the belief in us and the loyalty, it’s just everything.
“He’s everything (you want) when you’re building a program, when you’re talking about character and what we’re trying to build: Unselfish, super-star talent that’s the hardest worker. He does everything right. He treats people with respect. He’s a winner and he cares about his teammates. He’s just all about the right stuff.
Not only will Stewart play for Hopkins next season, but they’ll be together for USA U19 Basketball training camp in July. Stewart was selected for the camp this week while Hopkins was previously named a head coach. The camp will be used to determine the 12-member roster for the 2019 World Cup team.
“To be able to be a coach and then him deciding to go out there and do it, it’s going to be a lot of fun to be around him,” Hopkins said. “It will be a great bonding part and time for us to really connect and be together in a competitive environment. It will be a lot of fun.”