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Runnin' Rebels Take on Montana State

Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels guard Bryce Hamilton (13) drives to the basket during the Rebels’ season opener against Montana State at the Thomas & Mack Center Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020.

Late in last Saturday’s game at Kansas State, UNLV found itself nursing a 6-point lead and the shot clock running low.

Junior guard Bryce Hamilton received a pass at the top of the key, sized up his defender and drove down the left side of the lane. With 16 points already to his name, Hamilton beat his man off the dribble with ease, but when he got into the paint he found two additional help defenders waiting to cut off his scoring angle.

Undeterred, Hamilton came to a hard jump-stop, elevated off two feet and whipped a pass to the opposite corner, where one of the help defenders had left UNLV guard David Jenkins uncovered.

Jenkins drained the 3-pointer — his seventh of the game — to extend UNLV’s advantage to nine points and shut the door on Kansas State, giving the scarlet and gray their first win of the season.

The pass wasn’t perfect. It short-hopped Jenkins, forcing him to scoop it and shoot it in one motion, but considering Hamilton had to thread it through three sets of outstretched arms it was plenty good enough to go down as Hamilton’s sixth assist on the night, setting a new career high.

Hamilton now leads UNLV in assists through five games. That qualifies as an astounding and encouraging development for a player who coach T.J. Otzelberger has affectionately referred to as “Iso Bryce” in the past, and if Hamilton can keep up his newfound flair for distributing the ball it will fill a big void for the 2020-21 UNLV team.

Otzelberger believes Hamilton is experienced and talented enough to take on the role of a primary shot creator and facilitator.

“How we’re designing things offensively, I’m really trying to put it in Bryce’s hands,” Otzelberger said. “When they collapse the defense on Bryce, that’s where we can get those inside-out 3’s. Those are the shots we want and Bryce can create them. I think that’s a really impactful thing for our team.”

It’s decidedly more impactful because Hamilton appears to be the only player on the roster capable of executing the drive-and-dish game right now. If UNLV wants to play a lineup full of shooters, Hamilton looks like the best option for breaking down the defense off the dribble and creating open looks for others, as he did with kick-out pass to Jenkins last week.

That’s a play Hamilton would not have made in his first two seasons.

Last year Hamilton only had two contests where he recorded four or more assists; he has already hit that mark in four out of five games this season, including the half-dozen against Kansas State. After averaging 1.2 assists per game as a sophomore, Hamilton is currently handing out 4.0 per game this year.

Becoming a better passer was always the next evolutionary step for Hamilton, according to Otzelberger. Once Hamilton showed he could score at will last year (20.9 points per game in conference play) it forced opposing coaches and players to defend him differently.

Hamilton is still scoring 20.8 points this season and taking advantage of the extra attention by getting his teammates open looks, too.

“I think he has always been wired to score,” Otzelberger said, “but against better college teams, they’re going to design a defense that makes it hard to get to the rim. I would expect that if you look at the numbers, his free-throw rate and his shots at the rim are down this year, and I don’t think that’s him settling as much as it is defenses respecting him.”

Otzelberger is right about that. Hamilton’s free throw rate has dropped from .316 last year to .209 this season, and while 34.7 percent of his shots came around the rim last year, according to, those close attempts make up just 26.4 percent of his shots this season as defenses concentrate on clogging his route to the rim.

That’s why Hamilton is playing a different game now. Instead of slashing to the basket and putting up a contested shot, he is being tasked with reading defenses, finding the weak link in help rotations and delivering passes to his open teammates.

So far, he is doing it well.

“Bryce has demonstrably improved as a passer,” Otzelberger said. “We trust his playmaking and we’re going to put it in his hands more.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at

Article written by #LasVegasSun