Benched to start the season, Gophers guard Elijah Hawkins now never leaves court

Elijah Hawkins has played 79 of 80 total minutes across the past two games for the Gophers men’s basketball team. It wasn’t always this way with Minnesota’s point guard this season.

At the beginning of the year, Hawkins found himself benched in clutch situations, most notably at the end of the home loss to Missouri in November. The U was coughing up a 20-point lead, and all Hawkins could do was watch.

The Howard transfer had to adjust to what head coach Ben Johnson was demanding from his new junior floor general. That included harnessing his speed and not trying to floor it to 100 miles per hour.

“There is going to be growing pains with everything,” Hawkins said this week about the start of the season. “… We had some things in the beginning of the season that were a bit unfortunate for us.”

That’s all in the past now.

Hawkins scored a career-high 24 points with seven assists in the 88-79 win over Ohio State on Thursday. Averaging 7.6 assists per game, Hawkins is tied with Marquette’s Tyler Kolek for the nation’s lead as the Gophers (17-9, 8-7 Big Ten) are set to play Nebraska (19-8, 9-7) at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Lincoln, Neb.

“To his credit, he has such a will to him and is survivor,” Johnson said this week. “He is going to figure it out, ‘I need to change or I need to switch up or I need to be better at this, so I make sure I’m not in that position again.’ ”

Hawkins is on pace to break the Gophers’ single-season records for assists and assists per game, both held by Marcus Carr (207 and 6.6) in 2019-20.

“I think he has a great feel for the game, knowing time and place, when to get himself involved and when to get others involved,” fellow U guard Mike Mitchell Jr. said. “Setting our offense up, getting other people in their spots.”

Hawkins is fourth on the team in scoring at 9.1 points per game; his spike to 24 against the Buckeyes eclipsed his previous season highs of 16.

“He is a guy that we know obviously can distribute the ball, but I think people forget he is a pretty good scorer,” Johnson said.

Hawkins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-11, had to adjust to the physicality of the Big Ten and has been practicing his scoring at the rim and not fading on his 3-pointers. He is averaging 37 percent from deep and 39 from inside the arc.

“His finishing was better around the rim,” Johnson said about the Buckeyes game. “He has been working his butt off on finishes.”

With Ta’Lon Cooper transferring out after one underwhelming season a year ago, Minnesota went back into the NCAA transfer portal for another point guard. They also brought back Payton Willis to run the point in Johnson’s first year.

The Gophers staff was drawn to what Hawkins did in his two seasons at Howard, which including winning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) regular-season and tournament titles before losing to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament last season.

Johnson has talked often this season about the importance of bringing in a winner such as Hawkins to help flip the results from his first two years as head coach. Hawkins’ pedigree also includes playing at famed DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland, which has produced NBA players Adrian Dantley, Danny Ferry, Sidney Lowe, Victor Oladipo and many more.

The Gophers watched film of Hawkins at Howard, liked what he was able to do with his speed and paired that positive review with research they did on his character. The U staff worked its connections at DeMatha to get references on Hawkins.

“Then it was more of, Let’s get this guy here ASAP and let’s try to not let him go on any other visits,” Johnson said. “Try to get it done when he’s here on campus. I think he had a couple of other (visits) lined up.”

The Gophers wanted to show how Hawkins was “our guy,” Johnson said.

“We were really choosey at that position,” the coach said. “I mean, really choosey at that position. He checked all of our boxes, so when we got him here and got the chance to meet with him face-to-face and his family, then it was more of we need to be able to get this done and get him committed.”

Johnson said he wasn’t worried about Hawkins’ height. Any concerns he might have had were assuaged by former 5-foot-9 Gopher guard DeAndre Mathieu, who helped lead the Gophers to a NIT championship in 2013-14.

“I thought (Mathieu) totally changed what we ware doing defensively and offensively with just his speed,” said Johnson, who was then a U assistant coach. “I saw it first hand. I know it’s not (typical) in this league to have a guy with that size, but because … I seen how disruptive it was in our league and I saw how effective it could be.”

But Johnson needed to see that same “bulldog mentality” in Hawkins.

“I can remember,” Johnson said about his collegiate playing career 20 years ago. “When you got a guy underneath you, sometimes it is harder. You got to be careful with the ball. You just feel like they are a pesky gnat always there.”

Now, Hawkins is almost always buzzing around on the court. And they are already talking about what they can become with Hawkins next season.

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