- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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The job Tianna Hawkins hopes to land when she is done with basketball is considerably more consequential than one in which success and failure are separated by points on a scoreboard. If her career plan comes to pass, her future team will be that of a presidential protective detail with the United States Secret Service, the federal law enforcement agency with which the University of Maryland criminology major interned two summers ago.
The skills that set her apart in one endeavor seem far removed from those she might need in the other, a smooth jump shot from the elbow or nose for the ball presumably not the first thing the Secret Service looks for on a résumé.
Then again, nothing much gets between one of college basketball's best offensive rebounders and her current inanimate protectee -- not the thicket of bodies in the paint, not fatigue. Not anything.
"Mentally, I've just got to know that once the ball goes up, I got to get it," Hawkins said of her approach on the boards. "No one else can get it; I have to get this rebound."
Come on, that philosophy doesn't sound like someone ready for a job that comes with sunglasses and an earpiece?
For the time being, it's WNBA scouts, not federal agencies, likely to be excited about the basketball player Hawkins has become. More than halfway through her senior season, someone once ranked as an afterthought in her recruiting class might have finally answered the question of who goes fourth overall in the upcoming WNBA draft. A 6-foot-3 forward averaging 19.4 points and shooting 59 percent from the field to go with those rebounds is a good bet.
That she disproved such early skepticism about her game and became that player? Well, that's something any employer should be able to appreciate.
Hawkins ranks in the top 50 nationally in overall rebounding at 10 boards per game, but she is almost without peer when it comes to the offensive glass. Almost half of her rebounds come on shots initially missed by Maryland, leading to second and third chances that help fuel a team stubbornly sticking near the top of the polls despite injuries that wiped out much of its backcourt before the season ever got going. As the first full week of February began, only Oregon's Jillian Alleyne averaged more offensive rebounds per game than Hawkins among players in the six major conferences.
Chiney Ogwumike, Gennifer Brandon, Sam Ostarello, great rebounders one and all. But none quite so prolific as Hawkins on the offensive end.
"You can get a lot of defensive rebounds by boxing out," said Maryland associate head coach Tina Langley, responsible for much of the team's post work. "Rebounds are going to come to you at some point if you consistently do that. But offensively, to rebound like she does, you've really got to pursue the ball, and she does a phenomenal job of that. It is so much heart. We say that all the time, rebounding is heart, but offensive rebounding is a lot of passion."
There was a lot of talk when the season began, much of it emanating from the company on whose pages your eyes now linger, about a senior class that would define a college season and take the WNBA by storm. Someone even wrote a story about Skylar Diggins, Elene Delle Donne and Brittney Griner, three seniors who were nationally recognized names before they ever played college games but who all ended up starring close to home.
Less clear, if the assumption was those three would be selected with the first three picks in this spring's WNBA draft, was who came next. It's why Washington Mystics owner Sheila Johnson looked like she had seen the ghost of her own franchise when lousy lottery luck left the Mystics out in the cold with the fourth pick in a draft with three sure things.
Hawkins, who stayed close to her Washington, D.C.-area roots to go to Maryland, won't sell as many tickets as her counterparts by name alone. But if winning is the best marketing tool, she might do her part at the box office.
"You've got to start with her rebounding, and that's always been the case from day one with her," Florida State coach Sue Semrau siad. "What she's done is developed a face-up game where she has the ability to hit first shots, not just second and third efforts. That's admirable. To me, that's somebody who has put in the work and listened to her coaches and applied the knowledge that she has gained to benefit her growth as a player."
Hawkins was a successful high schooler and was named Maryland's player of the year her senior season at Riverdale Baptist School. But the colleges that came calling, with the exception of the one in nearby College Park, were not the names that regularly appear in the top 25 -- more like the names that regularly appear in the lower reaches of the conferences those teams dominate. One recruiting service ranked her No. 133 in her class.
She is circumspect about the motivation drawn from such assessments, acknowledging only perfunctorily that it made her want to prove she could compete with anyone. But assistant coach David Adkins still has a printout of that ranking on the wall of his office. It seems everyone associated with her at Maryland brings it up in conversation at some point. It is safe to say she hasn't forgotten.
Arriving at Maryland the same year as Hawkins after a successful tenure in high school basketball working with players like Kevin Durant and Greivis Vasquez, in addition to former Maryland star Marissa Coleman, Adkins put Hawkins through drills on a couple of occasions when she was still in high school. Rankings aside, he was impressed by how she responded to instruction and the raw rebounding ability he compared with any player he had worked with, male or female.
He also saw someone who had a lot of conditioning left to do to get in college basketball shape.
Hawkins riding a stationary bicycle on the sideline was a familiar sight her freshman year. Hawkins reduced to tears by conditioning was only slightly less so. She played a fair amount off the bench that season, made more starts but played fewer minutes her second season. Coaches told her to be patient. Teammates told her that her time would come.
As Hawkins recalled, "Me being stubborn and impatient was like, 'Well, my time isn't here; what's taking so long?' I'm putting in the work, and I wasn't seeing it instantly."
She started all 36 of Maryland's games as a junior, more than her first two seasons combined, and averaged 12.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. And this year, sharing a heavy burden with All-American Alyssa Thomas after the Terrapins lost guards Lauren Mincy and Brene Moseley to injuries, Hawkins emerged as an offensive force in her own right.
"I think her eyes were opened up to how hard it was, I think her body was opened up to how tough it was," Adkins said of the early learning curve. "But she kept coming back. She fought it. She fought it and gave up a couple of times, but the neat thing is she kept coming back. That's how you push that wall down. We talked about that wall of fatigue and that wall of giving up, and she kept pushing that wall back each year. And she progressed each year."
Her plan is still to work in federal law enforcement, ideally for the Secret Service, an interest she traces back to a grandfather and only stoked by the summer internship before her junior year. She'll try and polish that résumé while playing professional basketball -- not with more rebounds but with a master's degree.
"It's her will, her competitiveness, her heart," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "She's turned herself into the player she is, with her discipline and her dedication. This is why she's one of the best payers in the country, and she has consistently shown that every single night."
That sounds like a pretty good reference for any career.