Hungry Jack's NBL
Scotty Hopson: Building Character
Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz
Talent will get you far, but your character will define how good you can really be. That is something that Scotty Hopson has embraced this season with Melbourne United.
Coming off an All-NBL Second Team season with the New Zealand Breakers to join an already stacked roster in Melbourne, Hopson’s role was always going to be different to last season. After averaging 19.0 points, 4.7 assists and 5.7 rebounds with the Breakers and playing a feature role with a near career-high usage rate, he knew he wasn’t being brought in to be the man like that in Melbourne.
Add to that the need to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival in Australia and then trying to mesh with a group that had been together for a while, it was going to take some time to adjust.
So Hopson came in just trying to keep it simple.
“I knew I was coming to a really good team, a really good organisation,” Hopson told NBL Media on Tuesday.
“And I was told just to come in and I didn’t have to necessarily carry the scoring load and just have a positive impact on the basketball floor by playing good defence and playing fundamentally sound basketball. Over the season, [I’ve] just been trying to do my best at that role.”
It was working. In the early part of the season, Hopson was starting and United was rolling. They won their first six games and ten of their first eleven. Everything seemed like it was going great, but if you looked a little closer at the numbers, Hopson was not playing his best basketball.
That adjustment period was still in effect as he tried to find his spots in Dean Vickerman’s system. Hopson was averaging 11.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, but only shooting 35.1 per cent from the field and just 22.0 per cent from three-point range.
To an outsider, while the team was winning, Hopson didn’t look entirely comfortable out there and seemingly wasn’t enjoying himself as much as we saw last season.
“I wouldn’t say I wasn’t enjoying myself,” he explained.
“We were still winning the games; I’m always happy to see my team win. Overall, it’s just been a character-building year for me.
“It’s been a wild year, a COVID year, one that for me – I’m used to having my team travel with me. I’ve had a routine for the last four to five years. My agent, my support team travels with me when I embark to go play on new teams and that’s been disrupted. We do things on and off the basketball floor to aid in my performance and not having those guys around has been a little challenging.
“Along with coming into a new team, I pretty much arrived here – I get out of quarantine and it’s literally five days before the first preseason game. And I joined a team where guys have been playing together for months; some guys have been playing together for years, so there’s already a chemistry there, right? And I’m thinking, ‘I just want to fit into the team the best way I possibly can, not be disruptive, play good basketball, but also be me.’ That’s why they brought me here, to be myself.
“This team was already a fine-tuned machine before I even got here, so it’s been a bit of a challenge to navigate my way and to find comfort in that, but I think I’ve done that throughout the season.
“Here, late down the stretch, I’m feeling really comfortable in my role in coming off the bench and having an impact off the bench more so than anything. We’re playing good basketball as a team and it feels good.”
That was a lot to contend with initially and if Hopson didn’t look the same player as we saw last season, you could understand why.
Hopson was also battling some injuries early in the season. He’d turned his ankle a couple of times and then he tore his adductor muscle, which caused him to miss seven games in March.
The team lost four straight without Hopson before beginning to turn things around. He returned in early April and the team won three straight with Hopson playing well, but after he missed one more game in Round 13 with an ankle sprain, Coach Dean Vickerman bravely decided to make a change.
Hopson was going to be moved to the bench to lead the second unit.
“Dean came to me with the idea,” Hopson explained.
“There was a rotation of guys that had been having good numbers when they were on the basketball floor and he wanted to free me up a little bit, and have me come off the bench to play with that group of guys to have some success there. And I was all for it.
“My whole thing this season has just been ‘do whatever it takes to win.’ That’s what I’ve been about all season. Yeah, it was different, but whatever lessons come through basketball that are going to make me a better player and person, I’ve always taken them in, taken the challenge and kind of just went with it.
“So far, I actually enjoy it. It gives me a chance to evaluate the game that’s being played for a couple of minutes and when I get in, I’ve got a better feel for it when I get in the game.”
It’s nothing new for Vickerman. He’s made similar changes in previous seasons with Chris Goulding playing a sixth man role down the stretch of NBL19, including the Finals, and Melo Trimble being moved to the bench late last season.
But it was new for Hopson.
“For the first time in my career, I’ve been asked to play this role coming off the bench,” said Hopson.
“So for me, I actually look at it as a blessing. Like I said before, it’s been a character-building year, so it’s taught me many lessons. It’s helped me build that character that I’m gonna need going forward, especially if I was to get back to playing in the NBA at some point.
“So, it took some time. It certainly took some time, but I was always taught it ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish and I’m looking forward to finishing up this thing strong.”
Hopson certainly finished the regular season strong. In 17 games since returning from that 7-game absence, he’s averaged 12.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists, while he’s improved his shooting significantly, hitting 46.6% from the field and 38.5% from deep.
Melbourne went 14-3 in those games and has only lost 4 games all season with Hopson in the line-up.
“My form is certainly better,” admitted Hopson.
“But part of that too, is early on in the season I was battling through injuries. And it’s been a journey battling injury throughout the season.
“I think the last month or so, I’ve felt pretty much completely healthy and that’s helped me focus completely on the game, completely on my performance and completely on how I’ve been playing and how I can make a positive impact when I’m on the basketball floor.
“The club and the guys have been absolutely supportive in me being me when I’m out there and that’s certainly helped me get into some better form and have more fun out there on the basketball floor.”
While the sixth man role is still new for him, Hopson has embraced it these past few months. He’s found comfort in it and that’s been noticed.
On Tuesday, Hopson was named a finalist for the NBL’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, which will be announced next Wednesday. And while it may not be an award he saw himself winning when the season started, it’s certainly recognition that he’s appreciative of and it would be special if he were to walk away with that hardware.
“It’s another achievement that I’m always happy to get, when I do get them,” Hopson explained.
“But the one thing in my career that I don’t have is a championship and I really want this season to end with Melbourne United holding up that trophy. I think that’s more important than anything right now. I’m just really looking forward to competing as hard as I can to get that done.
“So, I appreciate everybody for thinking about me for getting that award and I think it just shows that the character building process that I’ve been in, that’s allowed me to get to a point where people are recognising me for that.”
Melbourne will start their Semi-Finals this Friday against South East Melbourne at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney. Due to the current COVID restrictions in Melbourne, the team has been away for the past few weeks and at this stage, will play the entire series against the Phoenix in Sydney.
After finishing on top of the ladder and securing Home Court throughout the Finals, they’ll now play the first round at a neutral venue without their fans – or any fans for that matter.
It’s the latest obstacle that Hopson and his team have had to face this season. They’ve had multiple injuries, schedule changes and lockdowns, but the team is approaching this latest uncertainty on the eve of the Finals, like they’ve approached most things this season: with confidence.
“Guys know the challenges of not being at home,” Hopson said.
“We worked so hard to get first place and we understand that we have a challenge not being at home. But my message to the team is that let’s just use the court as our sanctuary. Forget all the challenges outside out of the court and just focus on the one thing that we can control and that’s winning. And that makes everything a lot better for us and a lot better for this situation.
“In terms of playing on the road and winning games on the road, I’m pretty sure we’ve got the best road record this season, which is why I made the comment in the interview the other day that we’re road warriors. If we can continue to have some success playing on the road, I think how we win or where we win, it’s not going to matter, as long as we win.”
The reality is their opponents are in the same boat. The Phoenix have been in Queensland the past few weeks with a trip to New Zealand in the midst of that and will also miss the opportunity to host their first ever home Finals game.
It’s a shame that the first incarnation of this cross-town rivalry in the postseason will not be played at a packed John Cain Arena, but Hopson is still expecting a fierce contest.
“With South East, they call it the Throwdown, so I’m expecting that kind of atmosphere in the playoffs,” he described.
“That team, I feel like when they play us, they bring their best basketball and we’re certainly gonna bring ours. So, I’m expecting it to be a fight, I’m expecting it to be intense and I’m expecting us to come out and meet the challenge and play the best basketball we can possibly play, and hopefully come away with a victory.”
There are expectations on this group, especially with Bryce Cotton out for the Finals. Melbourne finished on top and they are the clear title favourites. They have a deep roster and with the team seemingly all very comfortable in their roles and firing on all cylinders, they are the team to beat.
Still Hopson, who has never won a professional championship in his career, is taking nothing for granted. This club has embraced him and he has embraced them back. He’s adjusted his game and taken on a new role to help this team be the best it can be.
And for that, it would mean a lot to win a ring this season, especially with this group.
“It would be a special moment,” he confessed.
“It’s a year of uncertainty; a lot of changes have been happening throughout the year. We started our season in Adelaide with changes and we finished the season in Adelaide with more changes due to COVID. In the middle throughout that process, we’ve had our ups and downs, but guys have stayed diligent, stayed competitive and we’ve had some special moments.
“So, I think winning this championship this year, with everything that’s transpired, all the changes with rules, us being on the road and not being able to see our families and our friends for X amount of time – and a lot of teams have dealt with that – but I think with all the things that have happened, I certainly think it would be a special moment.”
The kind of moment that would be testament to the character building he’s achieved in a season like no other for him.