If there was a definitive turning point for UNLV basketball last season, it was the team’s back-to-back losses to BYU and Pacific in December. Following those two uninspiring performances, which saw the team fall to 4-8, head coach T.J. Otzelberger sent a message to his squad by benching several starters and inserting players who gave full effort in practice.
The results were immediate: a four-game winning streak and seven victories in the next eight contests. The turnaround carried UNLV through a surprisingly strong Mountain West campaign that saw Otzelberger’s crew finish 12-6 and tied for second place. It happened that fast.
Bryce Hamilton’s personal turnaround lagged a bit behind that timeline, however.
After the BYU loss, Hamilton was one of the players yanked from the starting lineup. He played 18 minutes off the bench against Pacific and scored 13 points, but his defense and hustle left a lot to be desired.
Hamilton — a former 4-star recruit who committed to UNLV with intentions of being a program cornerstone — got just seven minutes off the bench in the following game. He went scoreless. One shot attempt, zero points.
So while the rest of the team celebrated its springboard win over Robert Morris on Dec. 21, Hamilton was left with doubts about his future at UNLV.
It’s not that Hamilton didn’t understand the general message Otzelberger was trying to send by benching him. It was that he didn’t quite consider himself as the intended target.
“The message was, coach T.J. showed us it doesn’t matter how good you are,” Hamilton says. “If you’re the best player, second-best player, best rebounder, whatever, he didn’t care about that; he played everybody that he thought wanted to play and was going to play hard for the team.”
Hamilton, at that moment, was not one of those hard-playing guys. He may have believed he was, but he was not.
“I didn’t think Bryce was playing to his potential and ability level,” Otzelberger says. “He was capable of a lot more.”
How, then, was Otzelberger going to be able to reach him? Hamilton is, by nature, reserved. It takes him a while to warm up to people, and he was naturally apprehensive of the coaching staff that replaced Marvin Menzies — the man who recruited him to UNLV — after his freshman season.
Getting through to Hamilton was key, because as much as Otzelberger wanted to preach hustle, he knew he needed to unlock Hamilton’s talent in order to win.
So he went to the Bryce whisperer.
Otzelberger called Hamilton’s mother, Jamie Jackson, and relayed the situation.
Jackson, as it turned out, was already ahead of Otzelberger. She had sensed something wasn’t right with her son since the previous season, when he was used sparingly by Menzies. Hamilton played just 11.5 minutes in conference games in 2019-20 and shot a disappointing 33.8 percent, and Jackson believed that dark cloud was still following him.
“Sometimes he wouldn’t say much, but I know my son,” Jackson says. “He’s kind of hard on himself. That first year at UNLV it was different for Bryce because he has always started. He was a starter and an integral part to every team, so that was a big change. That was something new, and it was a challenge for him.”
The bad vibes from that underwhelming debut campaign continued to affect Hamilton into the following season and Jackson believed he was allowing it to hamper his game.
When Otzelberger voiced his concerns with her — mainly that Hamilton wasn’t giving full effort — he was surprised to find that Jackson agreed.
“She is his rock,” Otzelberger says. “When we had that conversation, I assured her we loved her son and cared about him and had a plan for him, but he wasn’t living up to his end of the bargain. In those situations, parents will make excuses or blame the coaches. To her credit, she trusted us. I believe that was important, because then what Bryce heard from all of us was consistent. There were no mixed messages: We were going to demand more.”
Jackson appreciated Otzelberger’s outreach and committed to working with him in the shared interest of getting the most out of her son.
“From day one he was straightforward with me, and we worked together,” Jackson says. “Whatever coach T.J. wanted to see more of, I would help translate that to Bryce, because Bryce is very competitive and he just had to get in a rhythm after that first year. His rhythm was off and he needed to get comfortable with the coaches.”
After his scoreless outing against Robert Morris, UNLV had a week off for Christmas break. Hamilton, still stinging from his demotion, called home, as he always does following games.
If he was expecting a pep talk, Jackson had other ideas.
“I’m honest with my son. I don’t sugarcoat. If I see something — if he didn’t give 100 percent on a play or he didn’t play hard on defense — I let him know. Some people say, ‘Good game, good game.’ I’ll acknowledge the good, but it’s like an empathy sandwich. You tell him the good, then you tell him the bad, and then the good again.”
In this case, her conversation with Hamilton boiled down to one question.
“After every game he calls me and we talk about the game, and I’m always straightforward with him. After that game right before Christmas, I asked him, ‘Do you still have the passion to play?’ And he said yes.”
That confluence of events — his benching, watching his team play hard (and win) without him, and hearing straight talk from the person he trusted most — was enough to jar Hamilton back to reality.
When UNLV’s season resumed on Dec. 28, Hamilton played like a new man. Like a star. He scored 13 points in 25 minutes in a win over Eastern Michigan, and his eight rebounds proved to Otzelberger that he was committed to giving full effort in all aspects of the game.
Four days later, Hamilton scored 20 on 9-of-11 shooting to lead UNLV to an upset win over Utah State. The 6-foot-4 wing suddenly looked like one of the best players in the Mountain West.
Hamilton acknowledges that his heart to heart with mom made the difference.
“When I went back home I had that talk with my mom,” Hamilton says, “and I had that talk with myself. Straight on, no distractions, nothing like that. That’s where everything just clicked. That’s when I started to play better.”
Hamilton earned his way back into the starting lineup in late January, in the midst of a four-game stretch that saw him average 29.5 points per contest.
After months of prodding, the coach’s message had finally been delivered by proxy and Otzelberger had a superstar on his hands.
“His attitude was okay [before that],” Otzelberger says. “He wasn’t leading as much as he could. He wasn’t cutting loose and giving everything he had. Then I think as he understood we were in alignment with his mom and we were all on the same page, we started to see him deliver on that promise on a daily basis. It was almost like you could sense the momentum, like ‘Here he comes.’ He started approaching practice differently. He wasn’t just showing up, he was getting in workouts before and after. Prior to that, he was approaching practice maybe as something he had to do; now he was attacking it.”
Otzelberger points to a 35-point performance in a win over New Mexico on Jan. 18 as the moment he realized Hamilton had turned the corner.
“The New Mexico game at home, it felt like he stumbled into 35 points. We didn’t run any plays for him. He scored them all in the flow of the game. To do that is impressive. It’s not like we were just running ‘Iso Bryce’ all game. It was all in the normal flow. That’s a pretty special thing.”
Hamilton ended up averaging 20.9 points in conference play and was chosen for the All-Mountain West first team. He even briefly considered turning pro. But for now his full focus is on the 2020-21 season; no looking forward, no looking back, just a commitment to playing as hard as he can right now.
Otzelberger says Hamilton has been going hard in practice and has especially been hitting the glass like a man possessed (“I think he can average eight rebounds this year,” Otzelberger says). And during the long offseason, when Hamilton returned home to Southern California, Jackson says his attitude was noticeably improved.
“He was the happy, silly kid that he’s always been,” she says. “He doesn’t like to get too high or get too low, but with some of those challenges [last year] he did get low. He just wants to win. I can tell just by his mannerisms, the look in his eyes; I know that he’s on and he’s expecting a big year.”
When UNLV tips off against Montana State on Wednesday to open the season, you can be sure that Hamilton will be in the starting lineup and play plenty of minutes. He will score a bundle of points and grab rebounds, and he will play hard.
And he will continue to trust his mom. It’s working out for him so far.
“My mom has always been there for me,” Hamilton says. “She’s that one person that never just tells me the good; she tells me things I could be doing better. She wants the best for me, so I always listen to her.
“I just had to get better, mature, take the game more seriously. I feel like I’m starting to do that.”