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September 10, 2013 at 8:36 AM

Hikeem Stewart: “It’s now or never for me”

Had a chance to catch up with Hikeem Stewart weeks ago when he was playing at the Northwest Collegiate Summer League.

The third-year junior is making the transition from standout shooting guard at Rainier Beach High to Husky point guard. Adapting to the new position hasn’t been easy.

Stewart played in 17 games as a freshman as a reserve and 11 points and six assists for the season. As a sophomore, Stewart averaged more minutes (8.1 from 5.1), but he appeared in just 16 games and he finished with eight points, nine assists, six steals and seven turnovers for the season.

Stewart described the 2013-14 season as a make-or-break year for him. There’s plenty of contenders at point guard including Andrew Andrews, UW’s second leading returning scorer, All-American high school star Nigel Williams Goss and incoming freshman Jahmel Taylor.

Stewart said he has no regrets about choosing to play at Washington and talked about disproving his naysayers. He believes the Huskies will return to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence. He also raved about incoming freshman Darin Johnson and senior forward/center Perris Blackwell.

Here’s the interview.

(How is your summer going?) “Summer is going good. I’ve been up here ever since the end of school working out with the coaches. Just honing my skills right now. Working on being a point guard, dribbling and creating off the dribble and stuff like that.”

(That’s got to be something new for you because since I’ve known you, your game has been about getting the ball in the basket. But now it’s different right?) “Yeah in high school I was more dependent on for scoring. That’s always been my game. Now it’s just, when I got to college I got to see the game a little differently and learn things over. It took me two years to learn the point guard position. It’s tough because you got to worry about where guys  like to shoot the ball and how to get the team in order and commanding guys. I’ve never really had to do that. It’s all new to me, but it feels good. It feels like I’m becoming a better basketball player.”

(Talk about being a playmaker. That’s would seem like the biggest adjustment, just making plays for others and getting assists. When the ball leaves your hand is it odd that you’re throwing to a teammate and not aiming at the basket?) “[Laughs] I always like to get guys  involved. Sometimes I try to get a little too flashy, but that’s always been a part of my game. I like to get other guys involved. That part comes natural to me.”

(But you still like to shoot?) “Oh yeah, I love to shoot. It’s just some games I’ll come in with the mindset in the first half I’m going to get other guys involved. I’m going to dish and the second half I’m going to turn it on. Now I’m working on adding it together in one whole game so I won’t have to go in thinking about what I want to do and it’ll just come by nature.”

(It looks like you’re getting comfortable running the pick n’ roll.) “Actually  last year, I didn’t get enough playing time but I didn’t take that as a negative because the whole year I was running the point guard in practice. So every day after practice I’d work on my pick n’ roll with the chairs. This whole spring and summer, coach (Lorenzo) Romar had me working on the pick n’ roll. Just getting low, keeping my head up off the dribble and now I’m just putting it into play and it’s working for me.”

(Third in the program what type of expectations do you have for yourself?) “I have very high expectations because I got hurt my senior year (at Rainer Beach High), didn’t get to play that much my last two years at UW so I’m hungry as I’ve every been. I want to get out on the court and prove everybody wrong. I feel like it’s now or never for me. I’m coming in with a different mindset. I’m ready to get on the court. I’m hungry.”

(When you say “prove everybody wrong” what does that mean? Are you hearing things out there?) “I’m not hearing things. It’s just a lot of people come up to me and ask why this and why that. I’m just ready to play.”

(How difficult has it been to stay focused?) “It’s pretty difficult. Since I’m playing in my hometown you have a lot of people always in your ear talking you should do this or you should do that. I’m just staying focused. I picked UW for a reason. This is where I wanted to be. It’s not always going to be how you want it to be. I’m just working as hard as I can right now.”

(You ever have any doubts you made the wrong choice in picking Washington?) “Not at all. Not at all. Coach Romar has helped me become a way better basketball player than when I first got here. When I first got here, I didn’t know the point guard position at all and that kind of hurt me when I first got here because I had guards like Tony Wroten and Terrence (Ross) that do the same things that I do, but they’re four inches taller. So I had to do something else to set myself apart, either play defense or run the point. I couldn’t run the point that good and it kind of showed. It just took two years to develop.”

(That’s a good point. Last season you got on the  court because of your defense. Are you thinking that’s your role?) “I know defense is going to get me on the court so once I get out there, it’s just doing more and not just getting complacent. Once I get out and play D, okay let’s make plays. Let’s make shots and see what happens from there.”

(Let’s talk about the team. After missing the NCAA tournament the past two years what are reasonable expectations?) “I talk to the guys a lot and the expectations this year is to make the tournament without a doubt. That was our expectation last year, but I feel like this year we have a better chance with the core group that we have right now. Especially Perris, he talks about it a lot.”

(Who is in the core group and who is the leader? Looking from the outside in, I might say C.J. Wilcox, but he’s not a vocal, rah-rah guy. So who’s leading the team and who is in the core?) “I would say the core group of guys are the guys that are returning because we went through two years without making the tourney and it’s kind of frustrating. We went to Spain, we went overseas and we had high expectations to making it and not making it is a real heartbreaker. We look up to C.J. because he’s been here the longest, but I feel like our emotional leader has been Perris in practice. He’s that guy that gets guys up and get ready for practice. He’s not going to let you take a day off.”

(For people who haven’t Blackwell, what type of player is he?) “Perris is a monster. He’s a monster on the boards. He’s a monster on offense. He’s a monster on defense. You’re going to notice on the court. He’s loud. He energetic. And he wants to win. He’s hungry. He makes me play better in practice everyday. He’s just a monster. He’s a beast in every aspect of the game.”

(Sounds like he’s a vocal player.) “He’s real vocal. He’s going to challenge you to get better. If he sees you slacking off, he’s going to to yell at you but it’s never in a way to belittle you. It’s in a way that you’re either going to work or get off the court. He’s not going to take a day off.”

(It seems he brings a grown-man experience and demeanor to the team.) “Exactly. The gold squad is usually the younger guys either sophomores or freshmen or people redshirting. With him coming in, he was on the gold squad but he was like get after these guys. He made me elevate my game a lot.”

(Other than Blackwell, which of newcomers has impressed you?) “I’ve been impressed a lot by Darin. He’s a real athletic slasher. He’s long. He can play D. He’s real quick. Actually, Jahmel is a good shooter. I didn’t know he was that good of a shooter. I’ve been working out with him since the spring. But Darin is a heckuva athlete.”

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