This time last year, Amir Hinton was in central Pennsylvania, wrapping up a second season of college basketball, preparing to leave the only state he'd ever known.
He hadn't yet earned All-America honors or been crowned Division II's leading scorer. He hadn't yet gotten an agent or the NBA attention he so dearly craved. After two seasons of averaging over 23 points per game at Division II Lock Haven University, the redshirt sophomore was an all-conference, record-setting performer. But he couldn't shake the feeling that his talent was going unnoticed.
"I just knew that I needed more exposure if I was going to get to where I knew I could be," Hinton explains from a Miami Beach condo that has served as his home between predraft workouts. "Moving up to Division I seemed like the right step to prove that I belonged."
In a number of ways, Division I made sense. The NBA's top prospects largely come from Division I programs—the schools where Hinton believed he belonged all along. He wouldn't land at a D-I NCAA program, however. He transferred to Shaw University—a Division II school in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a far cry from neighboring Duke and North Carolina on Tobacco Road, but it offered Hinton a chance to compete against a higher level of talent in the more competitive Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA). It also gave him a chance to play for Joel Hopkins, a coach with a pedigree of working with NBA talent. Over a lengthy career across high school and college in the region, Hopkins had helped groom the likes of Tracy McGrady, Amar'e Stoudemire, Marquis Daniels, Jarrett Jack and Ronald "Flip" Murray.
Hopkins recruited Hinton after he dropped 28 against Shaw in a loss in November 2017.
"It was so obvious that he was a pro," Hopkins says. "It wasn't just us. No one in the country had an answer for him."
At 6'5", Hinton compares well to Murray, also a Philadelphia native, who made the jump from Shaw to the NBA in 2002. Hinton could follow a similar path, as he hopes to become the first D-II prospect picked since Utah selected Walsh University's Robert Whaley No. 51 overall in 2005. This week in Chicago, Hinton was one of 40 draft prospects participating in the NBA G League Elite Camp—the secondary combine for players not initially invited to the NBA combine (as well as 40 of the G League's most promising players). It will be the biggest basketball test of his young life—the capstone of months of relentless workouts at the University of Miami and private workouts with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons, Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks. The Bucks were so intrigued after Hinton's audition that they invited him to watch their series-clinching blowout of Boston with the front office. If he shows out this week, dozens more general managers will be looking to host the draft's next potential hidden gem too.
"The last couple of months, it all happened so fast," Hinton says. "I kind of had to step back and slow my mind down."
Growing up in the Olney neighborhood of North Philadelphia, Hinton wasn't sure what the future held, or how to get there, but he knew that athletics could be his ticket out. Less than seven miles from Philadelphia City Hall, Olney is far from glitzy Rittenhouse Square and the Rocky steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. While tourism and Philadelphia nightlife thrives downtown, Olney is a working-class neighborhood with a 26 percent poverty rate and an unemployment rate that's more than five times the national average. In a single-parent household with a mother who was working, Hinton and his six siblings had to find their own ways to steer clear of undesirable distractions on the street. As a kid, playing a year-round schedule of baseball, football and basketball was the best way he knew how.
"It was a tough area," Hinton says of Olney. "A lot of guys go down the wrong path, so I just stayed in my lane, kept my head down and tried to stay occupied."
In the summer of 2012, before ninth grade, Hinton moved in with his aunt in suburban Abington, Pennsylvania, looking to get away from the neighborhood and some family drama. In hindsight, "It was definitely the best thing for me," Hinton says. "I tried out for the team [at Abington Senior High School], and everything started coming together from there."
Still, he didn't quite know how to go about making his hoop dreams a reality. "It was kind of a 'wait your turn'-type situation for me," Hinton says of Abington Senior High School. "I was figuring out how to play the right way and how to get recruited on my own. I didn't even know why AAU was important until the last year I could play."
Hinton's older brother, Aswad, had played a year of junior college basketball, but for the most part Hinton was left to learn the inner workings of competitive high school basketball on his own. In his early years at Abington, playing within a system that was more structured than any he had been a part of in Olney, that proved difficult at times. But by the time he made the varsity team as a junior, his feel for the game was finally on point.
"It all clicked in 11th grade," Hinton says. "As far as waking up to work out before school, watching film of NBA players and really studying the game. That's when I really molded basketball into my life."
A diehard 76ers fan, Hinton grew up obsessing over the way Allen Iverson could manipulate a defense and attack the basket with abandon. But when it came time to shape his own talents, he pored over film of players like DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Durant, developing a slashing mid-range attack and strong post game that few high school defenders could handle. Over two seasons, he averaged 19.5 points per game and was an All-State selection his senior season.
But with no AAU experience prior to the summer before his senior year and only two varsity seasons under his belt, Hinton's recruiting options were limited. One bit of luck came from teammate Matt Penecale, a 6'4" senior guard who was drawing interest from colleges across the Northeast. When the coaches came to see Penecale, they quickly realized that another prospect was in the gym.
"A lot of [mid-major programs] recruited me because of [Penecale]," Hinton says. "A lot of the Ivy League schools and D-IIs and D-IIIs." Ultimately, Penecale went to Division II West Chester University. Hinton—who didn't qualify academically for Division I—landed at Lock Haven. He needed a redshirt year to boost his grades, but he put the work in and became an honor roll student. On the court, he reached 1,000 points faster than anyone in conference history.
"I can't take any credit with Amir," Hopkins says. "He navigated the whole process on his own. Some guys fall through the cracks with SAT prep, but he got himself together."
While Hinton's professional potential was clear before he ever set foot on Shaw's campus, the one thing Hopkins and his staff weren't sure of was the point guard's motor. What type of a worker was he? Did he enjoy the process of getting better, or did he depend solely on his natural-born athletic gifts? It didn't take long to get an answer.
In Hinton's Shaw University debut, a Nov. 10 win over Mansfield University, he dropped 29. The next game, facing old PSAC rival East Stroudsburg University, Hinton went for 44 on 8-of-17 shooting and made 27 of 29 free throws while playing through a turf toe injury. Back on campus the next morning, he showed up in an orthopedic walking boot, eager to game-plan for his next contest later that week. It was an off day. Hopkins, whose office is across from the weight room, could hear someone getting after it.
"Amir's in there alone at 8 in the morning, lifting weights with a [orthopedic walking] boot on his foot," Hopkins says. "Ain't that some shit? A 40-point night is nothing to him."
On Dec. 19, Hinton scored 52 at Tampa University, the second of what would be five games with 40-plus points. Hopkins had never coached a player who had scored 50 points in a game before. By season's end, Hinton ended up leading Division II with 29.4 points per game.
Tall for his position, Hinton has a number of enviable traits for a point guard: breakaway speed, above-average leaping ability and handles that make it hard for any defender to stay in front of him. He could be a good fit for today's NBA if he improves upon his 34 percent college three-point shooting mark. He makes his (soon-to-be) living slashing to the lane, creating for teammates and getting to the free-throw line, where he shot 89.4 percent on a Division II-leading 359 attempts. "At any level of competition, 30 per game is 30 per game," one NBA scout who requested anonymity says. "And he gets it in a variety of ways. He gets it in the open court, runs the floor well. They posted him up a good bit for a combo guard, so he has a good low-block game."
"Defensively, I think he's got good feet, good quickness," another scout says. "It's going to be an uphill climb, but I know a lot of NBA teams have taken notice."
In talking to those close to Hinton, the name of one NBA legend continually comes up. "His mid-range game is so efficient," Hopkins says. "As a slasher and a scorer, his game is exactly like Dwyane Wade's coming out of college."
That's high praise, and given Hinton's commitment to mimicking the way Flash used his body to create space on the floor, it's a compliment Hinton surely would appreciate.
For the time being, Hinton is slotted at No. 72 on ESPN's NBA Draft "Best Available" big board, two spots behind Michigan guard Jordan "Swaggy" Poole and one ahead of Kansas point guard Devon Dotson. With only 60 draft picks, 72nd would leave Hinton on the outside looking in. But where he falls will depend on how much value teams place in this year's crop of scoring point guards, such as Shamorie Ponds from St. John's, LSU's Tremont Waters and Syracuse's Tyus Battle.
Hinton's performance in Chicago will also be important. Just ask Flip Murray.
"There's more talent than most people think at D-II," says Murray, who went in the second round in 2002. "The blue-chip prospects end up going D-I, but after that there's a lot of good players who didn't have the grades to make D-I."
Like Hinton at the G League Elite Camp, Murray got a chance to prove himself at the combine. His draft class featured major college guards like Jay Williams, Juan Dixon, Fred Jones, Dajuan Wagner and Kareem Rush, but the draft combine helped Murray rise into the first-round conversation. He fell to Milwaukee at No. 42 in the second round and watched as those more famous names were called ahead of his.
"That's just the politics of the game," Murray says. "But one thing the NBA does respect is hard work. They reward the player who gives it 100 percent every time he touches the floor."
Murray's reward finally came in his second season. After being traded to Seattle in the Ray Allen blockbuster in 2003, Murray started 18 games and averaged 12.4 points per outing. He proved he could stick and in total played eight seasons for eight NBA teams.
"Amir's going to show some people what they're missing," Murray says. "He's more physical and has an advantage in college game experience over a lot of the one-and-done freshmen. As a competitor, he's not backing down from anyone."
According to Murray, who committed to UMass before SAT trouble sent him the junior college route, opportunity—not talent—often decides which players make the NBA. The politics of the game usually favor those who went the Division I route. Hinton's path, while inspiring, didn't make him one of the top 66 prospects to receive an outright invite to the NBA combine, so he knows there's work to be done to make his case.
"There's a chip on my shoulder," he says. "You get overlooked if you're not a big recruit. I'm taking that mindset into every workout, every game—playing like this could be my last day doing it."
Whether he's a second-round pick or he goes undrafted, Hinton's first chance to impress as a professional will likely come during NBA Summer League, where rosters full of young NBA players and undrafted prospects compete annually for 11 days in the desert. "Either way, someone will give him a shot [in Las Vegas]," Murray says. "That's all you can ask for."
The way Hinton sees it, once on even footing, you can play ball or not—no matter the setting. "The concept of pressure doesn't cross my mind," he says. "It's a higher level, but I know I'm athletic enough to make it."
Hinton is realistic about his draft prospects. He stays away from mock drafts, choosing direct information from teams via his agent, Kim Grillier, over "any outsider whose job it is to analyze." From what he hears, teams love his skill set and are intrigued to see how it transfers to a higher level of competition. "You need a Plan A, B and C," he says. "I used to figure that I would play overseas. But I always told myself, somehow, I would get to the NBA."
Hinton's "somehow" is beginning to take shape. In Miami, he's been a fixture at the practice facility and the gym, where he's been training each day with Tremont Waters. Much work remains, but Hinton knows just one way to his final destination. "It doesn't matter where you come from," he says. "You've got to invest in yourself."
Matt Foley is a writer based in New York. His freelance work has been featured in SLAM, The New York Times, OZY and theScore. Follow him on Twitter: @mattyfoles.