Blake Hinson can’t recite the pitch that convinced him to move halfway across the continent.
It was late July. Sunrise Christian Academy, a small Christian school and burgeoning basketball power, wanted to import some scoring punch. And the program, one plopped on the Kansas plains, pitched the former two-sport star on transforming his body to match his game.
But in Hinson’s retelling, it’s a matter-of-fact tale.
“Sunrise called,” Hinson said, “so I went.”
Eight months later, the 6-foot-7, 200-pound combo forward is entering the home stretch of his recruitment, mulling offers from Ole Miss, Seton Hall, Washington State and Missouri, which hosted him for an official visit on Monday and Tuesday.
In a way, the courtship feels familiar. For all the chatter about shoring up ball-handling, MU also faces a pressing need to replenish its supply of perimeter shooting with the departures of Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett, Michael Porter Jr., and, probably, Jontay Porter. At the same time, coach Cuonzo Martin has framed MU’s moves during the spring as ones that will cement a shift toward spreading the floor and putting his his own spin on positionless basketball.
Adding Hinson, a top-150 prospect who is reclassifying to play in 2018, would achieve both of those objectives.
It’s also what Sunrise Christian coach Luke Barnwell was hunting for last summer as he worked through the contacts on his phone. By late July, a coaching buddy in Florida turned him on to Hinson, who posted 29 points per game for Deltona, a bedroom community located 45 minutes north of Orlando.
“He’s a football guy, but he wants to focus on basketball,” Barnwell recalled his coaching buddy telling him. “He wants to really work on his body and get himself ready to play in college. And he may potentially want to class up and go somewhere after a year.”
A fellow Sunrise coach scouted Hinson live, calling Barnwell while he was working in the Bahamas at a basketball camp organized by Buddy Hield, a Sunrise alum. After a couple of phone calls and a FaceTime session, Hinson transferred west, passing on exploring the possibility of transferring to closer-to-home programs like IMG Academy and Montverde Academy.
“I didn’t go to IMG or Montverde strictly because they didn’t call,” Hinson said, “and I’m not somebody who is going to go bang on somebody’s door to go their school.”
Transforming Hinson’s physique was the first order of business, a task undertaken through daily 5 a.m. conditioning work, paired with lifting sessions five days a week. He tweaked his diet and learned to track his meals, shedding 30 pounds. By preseason’s end, Hinson no longer resembled the tight end he’d been in a past life, one who racked up football scholarship offers from the likes of Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Miami, Georgia, Michigan and Texas.
“The weight just needed to shift,” Barnwell said. “You don’t want to make him skin and bone, but you want to change bad weight to good weight, make him more mobile and bouncier.”
For all his bulk and brute strength, Hinson’s game is built on the chassis of a wing player.
Growing up, Blake’s father Denny — who coached his son at Deltona before retiring after the 2016-17 season — put his son through drill work to hone his ball-handling and face-up game. On film, it’s not uncommon to see Hinson yank down a rebound and push the ball in transition. He can attack out of pick-and-rolls and is at ease working in weave actions.
“Growing up, I was always the biggest person on the court,” Hinson said. “My dad was able to look through that and say, ‘You being bigger than everybody won’t always be the same throughout your life.’ The more I played, the more I was going to see bigger guys, and I needed to give myself an advantage.”
At Sunrise, Hinson’s game merged seamlessly with an offense that uses the four-out motion as its starting point. “We don’t run set plays,” Barnwell said. Instead, they space the floor around center N’Faly Dante, the No. 10 prospect in the 2020 class, and drive the ball and kick — a task made easier when teams have to also account for top-150 recruits in Hinson, Malik Hall and Grant Sherfield.
The system is also egalitarian. Four players averaged in double figures, while another six posted scoring marks close around nine points per game.
“On any given night, someone could get going, and we could ride the hot hand,” Barnwell said of the Buffaloes, who finished 23-2 and climbed as high as No. 2 in the USA Today Super 25 poll last season.
On some possessions, though, a post feed to Dante might set up the use of split cuts or a zero cut on the weak side of the floor to spring shooters loose. Or they might run a simple pick-and-pop action to get a player like Hinson a clean look at the rim.
“He grew a lot in the aspect of knowing when and where to be, really knowing how to use spacing,” Barnwell said. “He already had the shot-making ability coming in the door. We just had to move him around and put him in some areas. Sometimes it was driving. Sometimes it was using a ball screen. And sometimes it was posting him a little bit. But he has a great feel for how to get open and how to get a shot off.”
During his visit, Mizzou coaches pitched Hinson, who picked up an offer on March 22, on a potential hybrid role in Columbia, filling a void created by freshman Jontay Porter’s likely decision to remain in the NBA draft pool.
“They wanted someone who could give them shooting,” Hinson said. “With Jontay leaving, there’s room for a new forward. They haven’t explained specifically what the position might be, but there’s obviously room.”
As far as we know, he’s also the only frontcourt prospect the staff has vetted and feted. The calculus also makes sense. The pool of graduate-transfer options — Ryan Luther, Evan Boudreaux, and Ryan Welage — has been small, and as Martin told scribes last week, the program was focused on adding a point guard or combo guard.
Two weeks ago, Rivals analysts pegged Ole Miss as the favorite to land Hinson’s services, and seven days ago he was on a visit to Seton Hall. When word broke Monday morning of Hinson’s trip, it was treated a potential shift in focus for both Mizzou and Hinson. Yet Hinson said last month MU was likely to get a visit and on Tuesday said he lined up his visit shortly after he announced his move from the 2019 class to 2018.
While the possibility of taking over Porter’s old job certainly appeals to Hinson, Martin’s approach on the defensive end of the floor is what initially piqued his interest. “The thing I like about Cuonzo is, he’s a defensive guy,” he said.
Over the course of their chat, MU’s coach pulled up clips showcasing how his defense can generate transition opportunities that suit Hinson, such as spot-up 3-pointers.
“It can create a fast-paced offense because the defense is so good,” he said. “That fits pretty good with me.”
Slimming down made a potential fit possible. At Sunrise, the Buffaloes run a defense where players switch spots, one through four, on the floor. Three-pointers, whether they come off a catch or on the dribble, are verboten. Often, Barnwell’s club will apply heavy on-ball pressure, blitzing screens and then squaring up a dribbler. These tenets demand big men like Hinson and Hall feel comfortable operating in space.
“We told him, ‘Once you get on guards, just keep the ball in front of you and contest. Make them shoot over you.’” Barnwell said of the advice they dispensed to Hinson. “He grew a lot, where he understood where he is supposed to rotate and how he is supposed to close out.”
Having digested Martin’s presentation, Hinson sees plenty of schematic overlap.
“Coach Barnwell’s mentality and Coach Martin’s mentality are a lot alike,” he said. “Having been in that kind of system will help me a lot.”
It will if Missouri winds up as his next destination, anyway. After wrapping up his stay with a steak dinner at Chris McD’s, Hinson was slated to catch a flight west to Washington State, where he’ll take his last official visit. Right now, his tentative plan is to make a decision by May 5.
“I really feel like it’s for me,” he said of MU. “Their style and how they handle the game of basketball is how I think the game. They treat it like a business, and that’s what I appreciate about it. At the same time, you still feel comfortable playing. It sounds logical. But a lot of times, coaches don’t do that.”