Small City, Big Dreams

by Eldon Khorshidi | @eldonadam

All things considered, the sub-head of this post is a bit misleading. Yes, it’s true that Robert Hubbs is one of the premier backcourt players in the country, and no, that statement is not hyperbolic. The sub-head is misleading because if you asked a handful of basketball experts about Hubbs, they wouldn’t really know the deal, and as a result may not be quick to agree. They’d say, I assume, that “Robert Hubbs is a five-star, top-20 prospect, but I’ve never seen him play. I’ve watched a lot of film, talked to my staff and colleagues, but I honestly don’t know too much about him. I can’t put a face to the name.”

The pride and joy of Newbern, TN—a town on the Western border of Tennessee, with a mere population of 3,500—Hubbs (formally known as Robert Hubbs III) is, in my opinion, the poster boy “under the radar” player in the Class of 2013.

It’s hard to say that about a kid who held offers from virtually everywhere; Florida, Duke, Memphis, UCLA, Missouri, Oklahoma State…the list goes on. It’s hard to say that about a kid who regularly received text messages from Coach K during—out of all events—the Summer Olympics. It’s hard to say that about a kid who has five stars next to his name on every scouting service. But it’s easy to say because, well, Hubbs is tucked away in small town that appears to us as the middle of nowhere. In Newbern, national media and powerhouse athletics don’t exist.

Coach K and Billy Donovan know about Hubbs because they eat and breathe basketball, and oversee the East coast recruiting scene. Their scholarship offers give credence to Hubbs’ ranking. But everyone else? The so-called gurus, the McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand committees, the journalists who have a voice? To them, I think Hubbs is the kid whom they’ll be writing about a year or two from now, when the bandwagon is revving its engine and getting ready to dip.

“Coming from a small town, it’s understandable,” says Robert, who—although he has every reason to feel slighted and show discontent—opts for the higher road. “But I know what I’m capable of. I have big dreams, man. Once I get on campus, they’ll realize; I plan on winning conference Freshman of the Year next season.”

Next year, as he alludes to, Robert will suit up for his hometown Tennessee Volunteers, where Cuonzo Martin will put the ball in his hands and let him operate. Sure, Kentucky has one of the best incoming recruiting classes in history, but on an individual level, Hubbs can play with any of the big-time names.

In fact, the first time I saw Hubbs was at the Big Strick Classic, where he was playing alongside future Wildcats Andrew and Aaron Harrison. Like many of the folks in attendance, at first I didn’t know much about him. But after a few minutes I realized I was watching something special.

A 6-5, 190-pound shooting guard, Hubbs is first and foremost a scorer. Thanks to incredible athleticism and body control, coupled with long arms and broad shoulders, Hubbs is among the best two or three finishers in the country. If there’s one word to describe his game, it’s “fluid.” Picture a young Tracy McGrady, in the sense that he’s smooth yet powerful. Smooth because he can dribble and drive with either hand, and is acrobatic in the air, and powerful because he not only explodes off the ground but has a rare second-gear explosion in the air to finish over whatever is in front of him. Watching Hubbs is like watching one of those YouTube mixes, where the build-up of the play is in slow motion but then the finish sends shockwaves across the screen.

Hubbs’ career at Dyer County HS has been nothing short of sensational. In four years, the Choctaws are 111-11, with Hubbs tallying 2,000 points (claiming the school record), over 650 rebounds, 200 assists and 160 steals. And it’s not like he’s playing in a forgotten state; after all, Tennessee is a hotbed for high school talent this season. Hubbs will do his best to finish out his high school career on a strong note, as Dyer County plays in the District 13-AAA Championship tonight.

SLAMonline recently caught up with the dynamic swingman to discuss his game, relative lack of notoriety, college expectations and more.

SLAM: What’s up, Robert? How’s everything going?

Robert Hubbs: Everything is going good, man. I’m just staying in the gym, focusing on school, practicing with my teammates and continuing to work hard.

SLAM: The last time I saw you was in New York, at the Big Strick Classic. It was your first time in New York City. How was that experience?

RH: New York was great; like you said, it was my first time there, so I got some time to check everything out and walk through Manhattan. It was real different from Tennessee, but I really liked it.

SLAM: You’ve been heavily recruited in terms of the number of offers you’ve received, but on a national level, you’re not necessarily a “well-known” recruit. Do you pay attention to any of that stuff—rankings, articles, public recognition?

RH: I mean, I look at the rankings and articles, but in reality they don’t have any effect on me. It’s good to see my name rising, but I just gotta keep doing what I do, and go out there and work hard every day.

SLAM: Do you feel like you have something to prove—or, like, do you play with a chip on your shoulder—just because your town is so under the radar?

RH: Oh yeah, I always play with a chip on my shoulder. I always want to be the best player on the court. I’m doing everything to improve, so once I get in the spotlight I won’t dissapoint. I’m working on my shooting, dribbling, defense and quickness. And I lift weights almost every day—I’m just trying to be the best player I can be. Last year, our high school team won like 28 or 30 games, but we lost early and it hurt. I want to make sure we don’t have that same feeling this year, so I’m just working to bring home that State Championship.

SLAM: When I first saw you play, the first thing I noticed is that you’re really good in the air. Once you leave your feet, you’re crafty and have great body control—probably the best body control I’ve ever seen. Is that something you work on? Is it possible to work on moves once you’re in the air, or is that all natural ability?

RH: I honestly don’t know. I guess it’s natural, but also I try my best to read what the defense is doing, so it’s mental, too. A lot of it is instinct, which I’ve developed over time.

SLAM: Yeah, but it seems like you can attack and get into the lane at will. Do you try to get into the lane and play inside-out to get your game going?

RH: Yeah, that’s exactly how I feel.

SLAM: How would you describe your game to somebody who’s never seen you play?

RH: Um, I mean, like you said, I can get to the hole if I am being aggressive. I can shoot the ball deep, or mid-range or whatever, and I can make plays for my teammates and get them involved. I also take pride in rebounding—I spend a lot of time working on my rebounding.

SLAM: What do you mean? As in, you work on crashing boards from the opposite wing? Do you just go in traffic and try to catch put-backs?

RH: Whether it’s a put-back, or rebounding in traffic, or just regular rebounds, I try to do whatever my team needs. I take pride in rebounding because I think it makes you stay focused throughout the game. Even if your shots not falling, if you rebound, you can keep your head in the game because your concentration stays right there.

SLAM: What about the biggest thing you need to improve on right now? What aspects of your game are you really trying to develop?

RH: I know I can improve my defense a little bit more; just picking up guys full court, and staying with them and staying in front of them. Especially quicker guys who are shorter than me.

SLAM: Who are some guys you model your game after?

RH: Michael Jordan, of course, but after him, I watch a lot of Kobe and Dwyane Wade.

SLAM: You try to study their moves, their work ethic, or what?

RH: I look at their moves, to see how they take advantage of smaller guys, because I’m taller than most guards.

SLAM: Being from such a small town, how is the commotion in your high school. Are people all over you every day?

RH: It’s pretty intense, but I’m used to it now. But I mean, it feels good to be one of the only kids to come out my school to be nationally ranked and all that. It’s a blessing, and it just motivates me to work harder so I can be one of the best.

SLAM: Were you ever worried that you wouldn’t get exposure in Dyer County? Did you ever consider going to a private school?

RH: No, not really. I never thought about going to a private school.

SLAM: Why not? How did you think you were going to get exposure? Through AAU?

RH: Yeah, just through AAU. My dad knows a lot of people, and I trusted him to help me get exposure.

SLAM: Speaking of your dad, he’s an assistant coach on your AAU team. How’s that whole dynamic, playing for dad?

RH: I mean, I like it, you know, he tells me what I need to do better in the game, and how I’m playing. He always gives me advice and gets me going. He’s extra-hard on me, though, but that’s what I want.

SLAM: What are you trying to bring to UT next year?

RH: I wanna go out there and play hard, play wherever they need me. I want to hopefully be one of the best freshmen in college ball next year. Man, I can’t wait.

SLAM: Is representing for the state of Tennessee—and particularly Newbern—something you take pride in?

RH: Yes, for sure. It’s the one thing I always take pride in. It’s my hometown, and people around here are always supporting me, so I just want to make them happy. We’re like one big family here because the town is so small.

SLAM: What are your goals for college, and for the future?

RH: In college, I want to be conference Freshman of the Year, first-team All-American and just be one of the best in college basketball. And then, hopefully, one day I will make it to the NBA.