Hungry: It’s the feeling most foreigners living in China experience a mere two hours after chowing down on a plate of some cheap Chinese food. It’s also the adjective best used to describe Tianjin’s newest import guard, Vernon Hamilton, who has come to play in China this season with the intention of coming back next season.
Judging from the last three and a half weeks, he looks good on fulfilling that goal.
Flying out to Northeast China on short notice in early February at the request of Tianjin head coach, Bob MacKinnon, who coached Hamilton while with the Colorado 14ers in 2008-09, the 6-foot guard has quickly established himself in the country as a difference maker in the win column, and as arguably the best one-on-one perimeter defenders in the CBA.
Actually, it just took one game for the former All-ACC Defensive standout to make claim to those titles. In his Tianjin debut, Hamilton went right to work on the defensive end, limiting the streak scoring Josh Akognon to just 17 points on 5-19 shooting, while scoring 23 points, dishing out eight assists and swiping five steals himself to pace the Gold Lions’ upset win at home against second placed DongGuan.
Since then, Hamilton has locked up Guangdong’s Lester Hudson (who shot 10-25 for 28 points under Hamilton’s keen watch), Qingdao’s Dee Brown (4-15, 12 points) Jilin’s Tim Pickett (5-12, 18 points) and Shandong’s Myron Allen (0-7, 1 point). And although Tianjin still sits in last place entering the last two games of the year, the team has won two games with Hamilton over his 11 games in China, which is almost as many as the three they won in their previous 21 without him.
Playing shorthanded from injuries and an unexpected split with their other import last week, forward Herve Lamizana, Hamilton has done his best to shoulder the offensive load too, averaging 35.3 points, 12.7 rebounds and 6.3 assists over his last three games as the team’s lone import. On the season, he’s averaging 26.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5 assists and 3.3 steals.
And when we recently sat down with Vernon in Beijing to get his take on the CBA, the D-League and late-night delivery options in Tianjin, we learned that after tasting a partial season in the China, he’s hungry for even more.
NiuBBall: Just watching you two interact during practice and off the court, its easy to tell that you and Coach MacKinnon feel really comfortable with each other. What has it been like to reunite with him in Tianjin?
Vernon Hamilton: Getting back with Coach was great because he’s so familiar with my style of play. It’s not like I was going to a new coach for the first time where we both would have had to learn from each other. I know [Coach MacKinnon] as well as he knows me and I also know what he expects out of me night in and night out. He’s a great coach and me being a defensive minded guard fits right into his style of play with his many defensive schemes.
NiuBBall: What did he tell you about the league when you first got here?
VH: He told me not to expect to get a lot of calls. It’s tough playing in the away gyms, but nothing I haven’t seen before. He told me just mainly continue to find the time to take care of my body because I wouldn’t have access to as many things that I do have in the States. But, I like China. I was telling my agent I’m trying to get back over here to play [next year] and just try to finish these next games up strong so that will happen.
NiuBBall: So you’re definitely trying to come back to the CBA next season?
VH: I am. I like the country. This team has been very good with helping me to get as organized and as comfortable as possible. Making sure I have meal money, telling me where I can eat, I have a translator that really helps me out… And the coaches have really given me the freedom to be a leader. You know, just being able to make decisions on the court with these guys. I would love to return. I think with a full season over here and a training camp, I would be able to offer a team a lot. I want to be a playoff contender next season I know Tianjin has the capabilities as well as a lot of other teams here in the CBA. I look forward to working out a deal soon to get back playing in the CBA next season.
NiuBBall: You came out real short notice. Coach MacKinnon reached out to you, your D-League team put you on waivers and then you were playing in China. Is that pretty much how it went?
VH: Yeah, at first I didn’t think it was going to get done for a little bit. My D-League team (the Dakota Wizards) wasn’t really comfortable with that. But, they understood it was an opportunity. That’s what that league is for, to open up doors. So, eventually they were able to be alright with it. Coach had contacted me… I check in with Coach every two or three weeks anyways, just to say hello and to see how he’s doing out here, and then when he told me that they were ready to make a change, and that they wanted to go with a guard, he thought I could come out here and really help. I said “Please!” and I jumped right on it [laughing]. I flew back with him [to China] and I made my decision right when we talked and I was on a plane [to China] on the following Saturday. So it was quick.
NiuBBall: Sounds like you wanted to get out and play somewhere else.
VH: Yeah, I did. I noticed that there’s a lot of good players over here, especially with the Americans. And I was just like, if you can go over there and hold your own against those guys, it’ll speak volumes. I was just ready for something different.
NiuBBall: If another team in China reached out to you, do you think you still would have been as eager to play here? Or was Coach MacKinnon one of the main reasons?
VH: Coach Mac definitely played a role because I knew what he expected from me. With another coach that I had never played under before, I wouldn’t have known exactly what he wanted me to do, if he just wanted defense out of me or some offense or both. I knew Coach Mac was familiar with me, so we could just go right from the start. But, I wouldn’t have minded playing for a Chinese coach either. At the end of the day, you just gotta win out here… and put up numbers. So yeah, I still would have came.
NiuBBall: What were some of your goals when you first arrived in China?
VH: Well, Coach MacKinnon told me that we had 13 games left and we wanted to win as many as we could out of those 13. Our goal was to play somewhere around .500 or higher. We tried to set a realistic goal, to try to get some upsets and to mainly carry some momentum over into next season. That first DongGuan game was big. To win at home, it kind of gave me some momentum going forward. We lost a very close game to Marcus Williams and his team (Zhejiang Chouzhou), that one came down to the stretch. And of course we got that win against Jilin, and the game before that (against Liaoning) we should have won that, but I struggled. That was tough on me, it was one of my first bad games out here. I had 12 points, didn’t shoot well from the field and I knew me making a few more shots could have been the difference in the game. But, it allowed me to refocus for Jilin.
NiuBBall: Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that DongGuan game. Your first game for Tianjin, playing against one of the best teams in the league, going up against one of the top scoring guards in the league, Josh Akognon, tell us what that was like to get off to such a great start in a new league.
VH: You know, sometimes when you just go play and you don’t have time to think it, you almost do better. Because [when you are thinking], you’re so busy worrying about everything, you end up playing like a robot. But, I had been in training camp earlier this year [with the Detroit Pistons], guarding guys like Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey. One is 6-4 who can bang on you down in the post, and then you got Will Bynum who can jump out of the gym. It kind of prepared me for a lot. And then there’s a lot of good guards in the D-League, me and Scottie Reynolds had some good matchups, Zabian Dowdell… you know, so I was ready for it. That’s the main thing I wanted to do when I got out here, was to establish myself on defense. I think [Akognon] was averaging 25 or 26 and I held him to 17. I’m noticing what Coach Mac wants out of me, it was the same thing against [Jilin’s] Tim Pickett. He had 18 [points] and I was just trying to frustrate him. So over here with those guards, just to be able to get off the plane and play right away, it worked out because I’ve been able to play so freely.
NiuBBall: You mentioned your experience in camp with the Pistons as something that’s helped you prepare for playing overseas, do you think the D-League has also done a good job in preparing you to play against higher levels of competition?
VH: The D-League has. It’s good because it allows guys to get signed up and down [from their NBA]. From my team, Chris Johnson got called up, DeMarre Carroll got sent down from the Grizzlies, so you have a lot of guys who are coming to the D-League now who are being sent down, and it makes the competition better. In the D-League, the main issue obviously is the fan base and the support, because a lot of these cities already have professional teams, so they don’t need minor league teams. But outside of that, it was good for me. But, I was ready for a change, something different.
NiuBBall: A lot of D-League guys have played before in China, did you talk to them at all before you flew out or were you thinking you were just going to come out first and figure things out for yourself later?
VH: It was more figure it out later. I know some guys that have been over here in their career, and they’ve told me just how important it is to win over here. Because a lot of guys come here and they put up big numbers and they still gone. I think what it is, is that it’s got to be the right fit. You gotta be making the players around you better. If you’re not a difference maker, you’re going to have a short career in China. It’s a great league though, good competition. You know what, I did talk to somebody. I talked to John Lucas pretty often. He’s a good friend of mine, because he was on that 14ers team, too. I worked out with him my junior year in college, I spent the whole summer with him and his Dad. John’s a great guy. He told me what to expect and what to do, so it was good to have John kind of get in my ear early and tell me what to do over here.
NiuBBall: What have you been eating mostly since you’ve been here?
VH: I’ve had my share of noodles. I haven’t tried any raw food, I haven’t gone that route yet. No chicken heads for me [laughing]. Typically, I’ll eat pasta. I eat at Friday’s a lot. My Mom told me to get some Chinese food [laughing]. It’s not too bad. I haven’t really stepped too far out, but I think before I leave I’m going to try and experience some more. I’ve noticed I’m hungrier a lot more often. You know, because it’s hard to find food late at night. Most things shut down, and then it’s over for the night.
NiuBBall: I see you’ve figured out that after 10pm everything pretty much closes around here.
VH: Right, so I gotta order my food before I go to the game so I can have it after.
NiuBBall: Vernon, thanks again for hanging out, good luck with everything this season and beyond.
VH: No problem, thanks a lot.