From the Cards to the ‘Cats, Bryce Hopkins has all the makings of a Big Blue Nation fan-favorite.
A 4-star power forward from Oak Park, IL, Hopkins has always been the least-heralded recruit from Kentucky’s 2021 class. But following the decommitment of fellow 2021 prospect Nolan Hickman, Hopkins suddenly became a much more integral piece to the upcoming season, even if he doesn’t play in the backcourt.
Going back to the early stages of his high school career, Hopkins was not a sought-after player by most high-profile programs. His first few offers come from Big Ten schools such as Nebraska, Northwestern, and Illinois, the last of which coincidentally now plays an interesting role in his future as a Wildcat. Then in-state rival Louisville sent Hopkins an offer and quickly got him on campus for a visit back in the summer of 2019. Wisconsin and Kansas then got involved, but the Cardinals had the inside track and ultimately landed Hopkins of his basketball services a few months later in November.
At the time of his offer from Louisville, Hopkins wasn’t even a top 100 player in his class and improved to the mid-70s by the time he picked the Cards. But once his junior year of high school happened, Hopkins took a significant leap on the floor, jumping exponentially in the overall recruiting rankings. By the time his junior year came to a close, he was a top 40 player in the country by most outlets, including 247 Sports and Rivals. Heading into the summer before his senior season, Hopkins was a borderline 5-star prospect with his development showing little–if any–signs of slowing down.
As he continued to improve, so did his popularity across the college basketball scene. But that isn’t necessarily what led to him opting out of his commitment from Louisville and head coach Chris Mack–the pending NCAA investigations surrounding the program did the trick.
Hopkins reopened his recruitment in August of 2020, right smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, but his stock was still on the rise from the season before. It didn’t take long for the likes of Oregon, Notre Dame, Providence, Michigan, and eventually Kentucky, to reach out and extend offers of its own. He dropped a top 9 list that included Kentucky, Texas, Illinois, Indiana, and a few of the schools just mentioned. By the time September rolled around, Hopkins was peaking in the recruitment rankings. He took an unofficial visit to Lexington that same month before picking the ‘Cats in October and signing his Letter of Intent shortly after in November. In that sense, it was a bit of a quick transition during his second go-around as an uncommitted recruit.
“Coach [Calipari] was probably the first one, his name speaks for itself,” Hopkins told KSR about what reasons led to him picking UK. “And then the University itself, you can’t really beat it. It’s the most well-known basketball school around, so I look to just go there and do what I do, build my name and hopefully get to the next level.”
He proved his worth as a potential star back in March when he was tabbed by MaxPreps as the 2021 Player of the Year from the state of Illinois. At Fenwick High School, Hopkins averaged a 25-point, 14-rebound double-double as a senior, putting on a show as an undersized, ball-handling power forward who rebounds at an elite level with the scoring punch to boot. But up until this past weekend, Hopkins was a bit of an unknown compared to his peers and Kentucky fans.
Down in Memphis, the Iverson Classic was held from Friday through Saturday, featuring mini-games such as a 3-point shootout and dunk contest, followed by the main All-American event the day after on Saturday. Hopkins was a late invite to attend but accepted with a shot to put on a show in what was the only All-American game that will be held this summer. Going up against 5-star talent and a majority of the country’s top players, Hopkins more than held his own.
One of his brightest moments was when he pulled in a defensive rebound, quickly pushed the ball in transition, and dished off an easy pass to fellow Kentucky commit Daimion Collins for a slam.
Here’s a small glimpse into next season.
Bryce Hopkins rebound, runs the break himself, simple dish off to Daimion Collins for 2 easy points. pic.twitter.com/YzvHze9RA0
— Zack Geoghegan (@ZGeogheganKSR) May 9, 2021
Hopkins didn’t have much opportunity to put the ball in the basket, lining up at the 3 or 4 positions for most of the game while the primary ball handlers initiated most of the offense. But he did showcase his all-around feel for the game. Clocking in at 6-foot-8, 215 pounds, Hopkins can cover multiple areas of the floor on both ends of the court.
The most notable weakness in his game might actually be his measurements, though–he’s just a hair too small to defend sturdy bigs and a step too slow to stay in front of quicker wings. But his feet are quick and some time in the weight room could help amend both of those issues. More importantly, Hopkins understands the importance of being a good defender, especially at the next level.
“Just getting my jumpshot more consistent and staying low on defense,” Hopkins told KSR about what he needs to improve upon. “I know playing defense at the next level is gonna keep me on the court so I’ll look to do that.”
What he brings to the table is versatility. Hopkins can score from all three areas of the floor, can bring the ball up the court at 6-foot-8, and is a relentless rebounder on the glass. He told KSR that he’ll do “whatever the team needs me to do,” once he gets to Kentucky, and added that recruiting rankings aren’t always indicative of on-court potential, especially with how unusual the last year-plus has been.
“It doesn’t really matter about the rankings, you just gotta show what you can do, know your worth,” Hopkins said. “You know what you do, you know the time that you put in. So I know what I do. I know how much time I spend in the gym and the work I put in, so you just gotta stay focused on what you can control.”
Hopkins plans on arriving at the Kentucky campus on June 1, just a couple of days after Daimion Collins will do the same. The two got to know each other a bit better down in Memphis and even made it a group effort to recruit uncommitted 5-star point guard TyTy Washington, who was at the Iverson Classic, is considering UK, and will make his final decision on the evening of May 12. Hopkins has also been in touch with a current member of the roster, Jacob Toppin, just to talk about what Hopkins should expect once he does get to campus.
He was able to make a visit to Lexington during the pandemic, although safety restrictions severely limited what Hopkins was able to do during his time in town and with who he was able to communicate. He was another prospect whose primary recruiter was Joel Justus, who is now the lead assistant at Arizona State. But that coaching change didn’t do anything to Hopkins status at Kentucky. If anything, bringing in Orlando Antigua and Ron “Chin” Coleman from Illinois only made him more comfortable about his decision. Those two heavily recruited Hopkins to join the Fighting Illini before he chose the ‘Cats.
“Coach Antigua and Coach Chin, they coached at Illinois, and Illinois was in my top three when I was making my decision the second go-around, so I’m real cool with them,” Hopkins said. “With them being at Illinois that’s my home state, so I’m real cool with them.”
Off the court, Hopkins is your regular teenager: “I’m just a chill guy, fun, and easy to talk to. I like to play a lot of video games: Fortnite, 2K, Madden, stuff like that. I also golf with my dad sometimes.” He likes to use the Los Angeles Lakers when playing NBA2K, mainly due to his adoration of LeBron James (and we’ll say Anthony Davis, too). Don’t be surprised if his Big Blue Madness intro song is from popular rapper Lil Durk, either.
Hopkins isn’t the most noticeable personality on the hardwood, but he’s easy to talk to off of it. He had one mood: calm, cool, and collected. No moment seems too big for him, and that should translate quite nicely once he suits up as a Kentucky Wildcat this fall to play in front of what could be a fully-packed Rupp Arena.