HONOLULU — University of Hawai‘i-Manoa junior guard-forward Justin Hemsley embraces his newfound leadership role in a chaotic season shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hemsley, who enters his third consecutive season with the Rainbow Warriors’ basketball program, said he understands NCAA Division I collegiate basketball is a privilege that doesn’t last very long.
“Playing with energy is just part of who I am,” Hemsley said. “I just look at (playing the game of basketball) like ‘why not go hard?’ because you don’t get many opportunities. Basketball is not a forever thing.”
Making his presence felt
Through the first two games of the season, Hawai‘i men’s basketball coach Eran Ganot has praised the energy Hemsley brings to the court.
Hemsley’s early-season stat lines are modest averages of 5.5 points per game, one assist and three rebounds in the first two games against UH-Hilo and Hawai‘i Pacific University.
“I do take pride in trying to go as hard as possible and make my presence felt on the basketball court,” Hemsley said. “It’s contagious. I enjoy being that dude that people look to and enjoy being on their team.”
Gearing up for conference play
Hemsley, now a veteran leader on a squad that is still getting used to playing together, is helping get his team gets ready for the upcoming Big West Conference schedule.
Hawai‘i, which was supposed to begin the crammed conference schedule where they would play their conference foes on back-to-back days, knows conference play is a different level of intensity.
Hawai‘i was supposed to start conference play when they were to travel to California to play Cal-Poly Dec. 27, never got there.
The conference opener against the Mustangs was canceled because one of Cal-Poly’s players tested positive for COVID-19. The Warriors will now get ready to play their conference opener when they travel to UC Riverside Jan. 8.
Hemsley knows it will be a tough challenge.
“Playing in conference play is exciting for me,” Hemsley said. “I feel like it’s been a long time since we played any conference games. It’s exciting to know that for all of the work that we’ve put in, we will have something to show for what we do.”
Hemsley is trying to get his team psychologically prepared for conference play.
Unlike the first two victories against NCAA Division II opponents UH-Hilo and HPU, there will not be much room for error moving into conference play.
“Playing in the conference is a different atmosphere and a different intensity,” Hemsley said. “It’s really important to be locked in this week in practice. We can’t make the little mistakes because good teams will capitalize on those small mistakes.”
He expects few mistakes despite the limited time that the team has had on the court together.
“I think we are starting to get a little bit of a feel for games with each other, and I feel like we are starting to get a lot better,” Hemsley said. “In our second game, the guys are getting more comfortable playing with each other, and we continue to get those game reps in.”
As the conference season approaches, Hemsley is adamant about playing every game as if it is his last.
“You don’t get these opportunities forever,” Hemsley said. “That is what is important, to be super-focused and super-locked-in.”