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In appreciation of Josh Hawkinson

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He’ll graduate without having ever played for a winning team, which means it’s even more important to turn a spotlight on his awesome career.

NCAA Basketball: Washington State at Kansas State Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

When Josh Hawkinson’s WSU career ends in Las Vegas in a few weeks, he will do so as the most accomplished rebounder in Washington State University history.

And yet, since Josh Hawkinson also will end his career without ever playing on a team with a winning record and with something like 45 wins and 80 losses — including a winning percentage in conference play that will end up around .250 — he’s likely to be remembered by most fans as the most unfortunate of all successful WSU athletes:

That One Guy Who Was Really Good While Cougar Basketball Was Awful Again.

(Or, as my friend PJ likes to call them, the Ike Fontaine All-Stars. At least Ike’s got those 2,003 points to lean back on!)

I feel like it’s important, though, to not let that stop us from appreciating what Hawkinson has done the last four years — and really, it’s three years, given his sparing minutes as a freshman.

His ascension through the WSU record books is remarkable for a number of reasons.

First, the guy he ended up chasing for the crown of “best rebounder in school history,” Steve Puidokas, is considered by many to be the best player in the history of program. (Your mileage may vary.)

Second, as with so many who end up becoming stars at WSU, he didn’t arrive at WSU with a lot of fanfare. In fact, that’s underselling it by quite a bit; Hawkinson was barely a blip on the recruiting radar out of the Seattle suburb of Shoreline: His only other scholarship offers were to a pair of West Coast Conference also-rans — Santa Clara and San Diego.

Hawkinson also came to Pullman at a time when Ken Bone’s ship was taking on water faster than the coach could scoop it out, leading some — myself included — to assume the coach was just taking on whoever he could get because actual Pac-12 level players wouldn’t give his program the time of day.

It also didn’t help that Hawkinson looked like he wasn’t even old enough to be on a JV team, let alone playing Pac-12 basketball.

Not exactly a recipe for “guy who will rewrite the record books.”

And yet, before he ever took the floor, there were whispers that Bone really, really liked Hawkinson’s potential. Even in that first season, when he played just about six minutes a game, there were glimpses of why Bone liked him. His hands were soft, he had pretty good footwork, a nice little face up jumper ... and he was a monster on the glass.

Actually, with regards to the latter, nobody was describing him that way, since he was only playing sparingly and wasn’t soaring above outstretched arms to dramatically snatch rebounds away from opponents. However, he was collecting an inordinate proportion of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, something that was only readily apparent by looking at defensive rebounding percentage, a rate-based stat that simply divides a player’s rebounds by his opponents’ misses while he’s playing.

Hawkinson actually was grabbing about 1-in-5 misses in his limited minutes, a rate exceeded only by D.J. Shelton on that team. For context, DeAngelo Casto was just a hair over 20 percent in his best season; Aron Baynes grabbed 23 percent of opponents’ misses in his senior season. Brock Motum never exceeded 17 percent. Pretty good!

Still, while it was kind of exciting to see as a basketball nerd, you try not to read too much into small sample sizes. As it turned out, we weren’t reading enough into it, because when Shelton — an accomplished defensive rebounder in his own right — moved out of the way (rebounding is a zero sum game, after all), Hawkinson’s preternatural ability track down caroms truly was unleashed.

As a sophomore, Hawkinson grabbed an astonishing 31.1 percent of opponents’ misses on his way to 10.8 rebounds per game, the former ranking third in the entire country. Then, as if to prove it wasn’t a fluke, Hawkinson beat both numbers last season, grabbing 31.6 percent and 11.1 rebounds.

Former college and NBA coach Kevin O’Neill is fond of saying he didn’t ever run rebounding drills in practice because it’s not a skill you can teach. Either you’re good at rebounding or you aren’t, and Hawkinson might be the best example of this. He’s not the kind of superlative athlete one typically imagines when thinking of “dominant rebounder” (although, on the flip side, “he’s a sneaky good athlete,” commentators’ favorite line with regards to Hawkinson, is a well-worn trope that undersells his ability).

Hawkinson is a rebounding savant — a player who just has a seeming sixth sense for knowing where those shots are going to end up and positioning himself in such way that he can box out his opponent and catch the ball with his finger tips far enough away from his body that even the most athletic guys in the Pac-12 can’t get over or around him to even try and tip.

His overall rebounding numbers have taken a little bit of a hit this season; he’s getting more help from his teammates this season, so he’s “only” grabbing 26.6 percent of opponents’ misses (25th nationally) and 10.2 rebounds per game.

Hawkinson still is putting his stamp on the WSU record book before he goes. He’s now passed Puidokas for first in school history in double-doubles (a testament to the development of his offensive game, which is now a threat anywhere from two feet to 20 feet), and he is only 17 rebounds away from overtaking Puidokas for the school’s career rebounding record. Barring an injury, Hawkinson — who currently has 975 rebounds — will become the first WSU player to record 1,000 career rebounds.

Pretty amazing for an underrecruited kid from Shoreline.

You’ve only got a few more opportunities to watch Hawkinson play in Crimson and Gray — most likely four, maybe five — and certainly only one more in Pullman, when he’ll take on his favorite childhood school, the local university for which his mom starred, which didn’t even recruit him.

He’s been haunting the Huskies ever since, averaging 19 points and 14 rebounds in the last five meetings. Lorenzo Romar knows Hawkinson is one who got away. This is from a feature Christian Caple wrote for The News Tribune in 2015:

“You always do that,” said Romar, when asked if he regrets not recruiting a player like Hawkinson. “You always think that you had that opportunity. … There are so many guys out there — a Russell Westbrook, a guy like that, that was under-recruited and ends up being the fourth pick in the draft. And (Hawkinson) is one of those. ...

“Hat’s off to Hawkinson, because he’s something to deal with.”

If you’ve never watched a game by focusing just on Hawkinson’s defensive rebounding, do yourself a favor and make that happen before he leaves us — which, by the way, he could have done before this season as a graduate transfer in pursuit of more wins elsewhere.

Because no matter how many losses mount, it’s important to appreciate the awesome guys when they come around. Watching them and being thankful for them makes the losses just a little more bearable.

So, thanks Josh. Thanks for giving us something fun and unique to enjoy these last few years, and thanks for sticking around. Go beat the Huskies one more time, yeah?