Hamilton's worth shows in many ways for UF squad

Published: Saturday, January 11, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 10, 2003 at 11:26 p.m.

Justin Hamilton is not among the top 40 all-time scorers in Florida basketball history.

Nor is he among the top 40 rebounders.

But if you were picking a team of all-time Gator greats in their prime to play one game and you didn't pick Hamilton, you would be a dope.

In fact, while he may not make any all-SEC teams at season's end, if any of the coaches in the conference were picking a team of SEC players to go play a game that mattered, you can bet Hamilton would be one of the first picks.

"I know I would," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "You know, when I want to know what someone thinks of one of our players, I always listen to the opposing team's coaches who watch a lot of film. People who are looking at this team respect him as a player."

Too often, we look at a player's numbers to judge his ability. Hamilton is fourth on the Gator team in scoring, fourth in rebounding. And he is Florida's most valuable player.

What was it Mississippi State's Derrick Zimmerman said before Tuesday's game in Starkville?

"Justin is the key to that team," he said.

And that was before Hamilton lit up the Bulldogs for 22 points. He scored those points because Florida needed them in a game where the Gators were struggling on offense. When they need him on defense, that's what he provides. Rebounds? OK, if that's what you need. Steals? Assists?

Whatever it takes.

Hamilton scored 21 in Florida's first game, then three in its second. The reason was simple. Florida needed Hamilton to shut down Henry Domercant of Eastern Illinois. Domercant scored seven points in that game. He now leads the nation in scoring.

"Justin's just an incredible athlete," Donovan said. "Here's an example. After the Christmas break, we had eight days to get ready for Mississippi State. I worked the guys hard, double sessions. Some of the guys after four days really hit a wall. Justin was unfazed. He can run and play basketball all day."

On Tuesday, he sat down once, playing 38 minutes in a high-energy environment. Today against Georgia, he takes the court with a special mindset.

It was against the Bulldogs two years ago that Hamilton suffered a season-ending knee injury while driving to the basket after a steal late in the game. Last year, he missed the game against Georgia in the O'Connell Center with a shoulder injury. Florida lost both games at home.

"I definitely have it in the back of my mind," he said.

The injury two years ago was devastating. Donovan said he believes it took Hamilton all of last season to shake it off.

"It's something that is imprinted in my head," Hamilton said. "I learned a lot from a basketball standpoint and a life standpoint. It was a tough time emotionally. I lost it. It's something I'll always remember."

But it has made him better. He takes nothing for granted, which explains why he plays every possession as if it was the Final Four.

"I think the experience has made Justin Hamilton who he is as a player," Donovan said. "He knows it was almost taken from him. He's going to do the things that don't show up in the stat sheet."

Despite the mental anguish that went with the knee injury in 2001, it's difficult to imagine Hamilton ever losing it. He shows all of the emotion of a guard at Buckingham Palace.

It starts in the locker room where he quietly listens to Tupac, absorbing the lyrics about fighting through adversity, to the pre-game introductions. You've seen him, stoically walking through his teammates as his name is called as if he wants to dispense with the hoopla and get to the game.

There, he is a whirling dervish on defense, his hands moving faster than Ron Zook's lips.

"The first time I played against him, it was surprising," Florida freshman guard Anthony Roberson said. "Sometimes, you just watch him and learn from it."

Defense has always been his specialty, even when he was an unsung freshman in a big-time recruiting class that included Donnell Harvey, Brett Nelson and Matt Bonner.

But this year it is his offense that has caught the attention of opposing teams. Hamilton is shooting an amazing 59 percent from the field. He has made 26 of his last 35 shots, including 8-of-12 at Mississippi State.

And when Florida's offense has had problems this season, when the freshmen are getting a little too shot-happy, you know what's coming - the high post pick for Hamilton to drive to the basket.

But his outside shot is also improved. Teams no longer can back away from him when Hamilton is outside the arc, where he has made 42 percent of his three-point attempts.

"I think he needed a year under his belt after the injury," Donovan said. "He takes good shots. He's very, very mature. He's probably the closest thing to a coach we have out there.

"That's the thing about Justin. After the Mississippi State game, everyone was all happy and he was already getting ready for Georgia. He knows that he has to go to work every day."

He is a player who will never be seen jumping up and down after a made shot.

"He's quiet," Roberson said, "but when he says something, you know it's going to be powerful."

Hamilton leads the team in assists and is the only player on the team with more steals than turnovers. And his overall excellent play is getting the attention of the NBA as well. At least one projected draft board has Hamilton being selected in the second round.

Perhaps the best praise J-Ham has received this season came after the Kansas game in Madison Square Garden. Jeff Van Gundy, the former New York Knicks coach, took Hamilton aside in the Gator locker room after the senior guard scored 14 points and had seven assists with one turnover.

"If I ever get back into coaching," Van Gundy said, "I want you on my team."

For now he is on Florida's team with the clock running. This the final year to watch the personification of defense, the tight-lipped intensity, the athleticism that Donovan saw when he recruited Hamilton four years ago.

This may sound strange, but Florida will miss Hamilton next year more than it will the more-heralded recruits who joined him in Gainesville. Then, he was the other guy. Now, he is the man.

"I just try to live each day to the fullest," he said.

That he is doing.

You can reach sports columnist Pat Dooley by e-mail at dooleyp@gvillesun.com or by calling 374-5053. You can see Pat on "Sports Showdown" with Larry Vettel on WGFL-CBS 4 Fridays at 11 p.m. and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m.

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