Courtesy of UNLV
Tuesday, June 22, 2021 | 2 a.m.
In the two weeks since UNLV basketball began its summer workouts, an early theme has developed for the 2021-22 team: competition.
New head coach Kevin Kruger was able to take his squad on the court for the first time on June 7, as NCAA rules allow programs an eight-week window for offseason practice sessions. Teams can spend four hours per week receiving on-court instruction, while four additional hours are allotted for strength and conditioning work.
It’s an integral time for UNLV, as the program has undergone a major facelift since the end of last season. Kruger was hired on March 21, and since then he has hired two new assistant coaches and restocked the roster with nine new players.
Kruger said the plan is to use the summer workouts to iron out some of the fundamentals, such as introducing the players to his philosophical concepts and terminology.
The players may not know each other or Kruger’s playbook very well yet, but one thing that has encouraged the first-time head coach is the way the team has competed.
Though the 2021-22 season is still five months away, Kruger believes his guys want to start making their cases for playing time right now.
“We’ve talked about having guys that have that chip on their shoulder and want to be able to prove people wrong,” Kruger said. “For whatever reason at their previous school, they didn’t really have the same opportunity that they’re going to have here. They’ve worked extremely hard and they’ve gotten after each other in a good way. It’s very pleasing to see that they are going to compete like they’ve been competing.”
Twelve of the team’s 13 scholarship players are on campus and participating in basketball activities. The only piece missing from the roster is center James Hampshire, a transfer from Pacific who committed to UNLV three weeks ago. Hampshire has to finish up his coursework at Pacific before joining his new team.
Everyone else has been present and accounted for, including returning junior guard Bryce Hamilton, who tested the NBA Draft process before deciding to play another year at UNLV.
Hamilton, who led the scarlet and gray with 17.9 points per game last year, figures to be an offensive focal point again in 2021-22. That has led to Hamilton being something of a marked man in early practices.
“Bryce has been great,” Kruger said. “He’s done a good job of competing. He’s got guys like Donovan Williams and Victor Iwaukor who enjoy the challenge of guarding him because they know how good of a scorer he is and how dynamic of a player he is, so they’ve enjoyed being able to guard him.”
Another player who has adapted to the competitive landscape quickly is guard Keshon Gilbert. The only freshman on the team, Gilbert has impressed the coaching staff with his willingness to battle the older players in all situations.
“Keshon’s reputation is that of being a competitor and a fighter and a bulldog, and he has not disappointed in that regard,” Kruger said. “He gets after it in every drill, every day. He is the youngest by quite a wide margin and he’s going to continue to grow and develop, but when he gets out on the court he enjoys competing and working hard. It’s not a surprise, but it’s nice to see because you know he’s going to fight.”
UNLV will have plenty of time to work on the technical aspects of the game before next season tips off. For now, Kruger simply wants to see a collection of players who have a strong work ethic and a desire to prove themselves.
So far, Kruger’s first squad is fitting that image.
“It’s only been a few weeks but they definitely have a feel of wanting to band together and wanting to help each other,” Kruger said, “but also wanting to compete at it. I think this team’s dynamic has a very healthy dose of, ‘Well if you’re not going to do it, I’m going to.’ That’s where the competition steps up, but I think there’s a genuine happiness when their teammate steps up and makes a play and does something well. There has been a lot of good competition and the camaraderie has been good.”