Culture / Sporting Life

UH’s Nate Hinton is College Basketball’s Most Underrated Star, But At Least One National Pundit is Finally Catching On

This Son of a Preacher Man Gives Kelvin Sampson's Team a Force to Believe In

BY // 01.04.20

Nate Hinton did not make any of the AAC’s preseason all-conference teams. He is on nobody’s national watch list. Just like he was not ranked in the Top 100 in high school until the very final rankings.

It tends to take people a while to notice Hinton.

But there soon may be no way to miss this son of a preacher man. The University of Houston’s sophomore captain is one of the most relentless players in all of college basketball. And Hinton is pushing the Cougars back towards the national conversation, one all-out game at a time.

Hinton can be hard to classify. In a hoops world that worships bucket makers, he is not all about scoring. He is anything but a gunner and it’s hard to imagine Nate Hinton ever averaging 20 points per game. But he’s a nightmare to go against.

Just ask Johnny Dawkins — the coach of the UCF program that almost took out Zion Williamson last March. Dawkins’ team has no answer for Hinton in the Cougars conference opener Friday night. This 78-63 UH win has Hinton’s fingerprints all over it.

He finishes with 20 points, 16 rebounds, five steals (several that ignite Houston’s devastating running game) and three assists in 36 high-energy minutes. There are many ways to impact a basketball game besides scoring — and Nate Hinton seems to find every single one of them.

Even if some are slow to catch on.

“I just think that’s the generation we live in,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson says. “The shiniest penny. The highest rated guys. I don’t want to sound ignorant or naive. I don’t know where Hinton was ranked (coming out of high school).

“. . . We don’t recruit guys based on what people think of where they’re ranked.”

Sampson latched onto Hinton from the first time he watched him play amid the roundball chaos of a massive tournament in Georgia in April of Hinton’s junior year in high school. Before Indiana, Tennessee, Clemson and Georgetown tried to jump in, Houston’s basketball lifer of a coach recognized something in Hinton almost from the jump.

“Nate’s Nate,” Sampson says. “When I saw him I said he’s going to be a captain because he impacts winning in so many different ways. He impacts winning in practice. He impacts winning in the classroom. He impacts winning in the community.”

This 20-year-old is the leader of an 11-3 Houston team that’s moved up to No. 27 in the nation in the KenPom rankings after righting itself in Hawaii. Maybe if experienced, sharp shooting guard Armoni Brooks hadn’t inexplicably decided to declare for the NBA Draft last spring (he wasn’t picked), Hinton would not have this burden so early.

But he does. And he’s embracing it. Hinton is the sophomore who will lead them because that’s what the Cougars need.

“Not to be about me, but if I don’t bring it, maybe some of the other guys look at me like, ‘Well that’s just the culture of the program.’ I take what I learned from Corey (Davis Jr.), Galen (Robinson Jr.), Breaon (Brady) — all those guys,” Hinton says of the leaders of last season’s record-setting 33-4 UH team.

“It’s a little bit of pressure. But that’s just who I am. It’s nothing I’ve got to do extra. Just to go out there and lead the team.”

Of course, it is a big something. Luckily, Hinton’s seen effective leadership up close pretty much his entire life. His dad is the senior pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Gastonia, North Carolina. Dr. Benjamin Hinton was licensed to preach at age 19 and he started leading his own congregation soon after. Tabernacle now even has its own TV show that is broadcast in North and South Carolina.

The word of Benjamin Hinton’s son also may be finally spreading. CBS Sports analyst Jon Rothstein is certainly now on board, tweeting “Nate Hinton. You should have bought stock a long time ago,” during UH’s dismantling of UCF.

The 6-foot-5, long armed, athletic Hinton is the prototypical 3 and D guy in many ways, the type of player that NBA teams always need in today’s game. While Hinton only ranks 18th in scoring (12.7 points per game) in the American Athletic Conference, he is second in rebounding  (9.7 per game) and fourth in 3-point shooting percentage (44.8 percent).

His gifts are on full display in one late play against UCF when Hinton pokes the ball away from a Knights ball handler, races up to catch up to the loose basketball, picks it up on one dribble and races the other way for a breakaway dunk. It’s a stunning combination of defensive positioning, intelligence, instincts and athleticism in one sequence.

Nate Hinton on a Mission

When I ask Hinton about the flurry of steals in UH’s conference opener, he shifts the talk from him to the team’s mission — and pressing timetable.

“It’s playing hard,” Hinton simply says. “It’s conference, we can’t play the same way. We have 17 more games, eight more home games and nine more road games. We’re taking the advantage of opportunity like coach says. He told us before the game that we didn’t get this back.

“There aren’t any home playoff games, we have to go out there and play hard to win.”

There are many ways to impact a basketball game besides scoring — and Nate Hinton seems to find every single one of them.

UH lost close home games to BYU and Oklahoma State earlier in the season, but Sampson’s teams always improve as the months advance on the calendar. The Cougars found something in Hawaii, coming back from 14 points down in the tournament’s championship game to stun No. 21 Washington.

They’re back on track for the NCAA Tournament. And despite the fact that No. 9 Memphis (12-2) and No. 24 Wichita State (13-1) are sucking up all the attention in the AAC (probably somewhat rightly so), there is no rule against UH defending its conference title.

Nate Hinton’s presence keeps them in the game. Even with DeJon Jarreau alternating between infuriating and somewhat satisfying Sampson (the talented Jarreau commits a slew of turnovers in the first half against UCF and then steadies the team when the Knights pull within two points in the second half), these Cougars still have a chance to do something special.

Fabian White Jr. has emerged as a consistent threat, not just on his patented baseline jumpers, but also with some inside scoring. Freshman guards Caleb Mills and Marcus Sasser can play.

The crowds at the Fertitta Center certainly continue to catch on. With the UH playing at 6 pm on a Friday, with the Rockets hosting a marquee opponent (the Philadelphia 76ers) less than three miles away at around the same time, Houston’s jewel of an on-campus arena is largely packed — and loud.

Hinton is playing like he deserves the noise. One ferocious play at a time. For Hinton, every game, every minute, every defensive possession counts.

Kelvin Sampson and Nate Hinton are separated by 40 years and several basketball generations. UH’s leader is one of the only coaches in America who can casually drop a Rick Mount reference into a postgame press conference. Mount is the former sharp shooting guard who starred at Purdue in the late 1960s and had a run in the ABA in the 1970s, “Steph Curry before Steph Curry” as Sampson puts it.

Yet, this basketball lifer and the son of a preacher man somehow see the game in many of the same ways.

“If I had to pick someone to be the face of Houston Cougars basketball, I’d want it to be Nate,” Sampson says simply.

One place where Nate Hinton is not underrated is on UH’s practice courts. There, he is properly recognized as the difference maker.

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