Larry Hamilton, a starter at defensive tackle on Brigham Young’s 1984 national championship team, probably never thought he’d turn his son onto basketball.
Then again, he probably never thought his son would stand 6-foot-6, 240 pounds - by the 10th grade.
So after playing tight end and wide receiver at Lone Peak High in Alpine, Utah, as a freshman and sophomore, Justin Hamilton took his father’s advice and tried out for the school’s sophomore basketball team.
“My dad saw that I was really big and that I was pretty coordinated and thought I’d do really well at basketball,” Justin Hamilton said. “He encouraged me to try out for the team.”
Six years later, Hamilton stands 7-feet, 260 pounds.
The junior center will make his long-awaited debut at LSU next month after playing two seasons at Iowa State, where he started 49 games. Hamilton arrived in Baton Rouge as a transfer more than a year ago, but had to sit out the 2010-11 season to fulfill NCAA residency requirements.
He said he still brings a football-like mentality to the hardwood, the byproduct of growing up in a football family.
LSU teammate Eddie Ludwig, a junior forward, agrees.
“He’s probably going to be the only 7-foot guy this year taking charges,” Ludwig said. “But I’m sure he’s going to take a lot of them.”
Hamilton joins seniors Malcolm White and Storm Warren, both returning starters, and freshman Johnny O’Bryant to give the Tigers a formidable inside game. He is known as a heady player who can pass and shoot and takes pride in playing defense.
“He enables Storm and Malcolm to be who they are as basketball players,” LSU coach Trent Johnson said. “Both of those players have had to play out of position and guard guys who were bigger and stronger.”
Hamilton said until his sophomore year at Lone Peak, he never played much organized basketball to speak of, in part because he envisioned himself a football prospect.
On the hardwood, he was hardly a slam dunk.
His sophomore year, Hamilton said he barely made the sophomore team. His junior year, he played for the junior varsity.
He finally landed a starting spot on the varsity as a senior, averaging 10.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3.2 blocks and helping lead Lone Peak to a national ranking.
“I decided I was going to work hard,” Hamilton said, “and I fully invested in basketball. I’d go to practice, then I’d go work out for another two hours every single day. I was the first one in the gym and the last one to leave - every day.”
Even then, though, Hamilton said he was viewed more as a project than a prospect.
Iowa State assistant T.J. Otzelberger, the summer before Hamilton’s senior year, happened upon the big man from Utah at an AAU tournament in California.
“He got lost and happened to walk into my gym,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton committed to Iowa State in September 2007, before he’d ever started a varsity game.
“They signed me just because they saw a lot of potential upside,” Hamilton said. “I think their initial thought was to redshirt me, but I came in and kept working and kept getting bigger and stronger.”
Hamilton made an immediate impact, starting 18 games in 2008-09 and playing in 12 others. He averaged 4.2 points and 2.9 rebounds, shooting 57 percent from the field.
The following year, Hamilton averaged 6.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks, making 31 starts. His field-goal percentage (61.7) was the fourth-best total in school history for a single season.
But after back-to-back 15-17 seasons, Hamilton announced he would transfer.
He soon got a call from Johnson, who as the Stanford coach had recruited Tyler Haws, Hamilton’s high-school teammate. Haws ultimately signed with BYU.
“When I decided to transfer, he was the very first person to call me,” Hamilton said of Johnson. “He came to visit me two days later. I liked what he had to say, and I trusted him.”
Hamilton won the respect of his coaches and teammates while practicing with the Tigers throughout the 2010-11 season.
On the team’s tour of Italy in the spring, he finally got a chance to show what he could do in live game action.
Not only was Hamilton the team’s top scorer, averaging 14.5 points in LSU’s six wins, but he also served as a quarterback of sorts while directing the defensive attack.
“He brings a vocal leader on defense,” Ludwig said, recalling the Italy trip. “He was yelling out different stuff, making sure we were in the right position to make a play and keeping everybody in line.’
Now, as the Tigers inch closer to their Nov. 12 opener, Hamilton is eager to do his part in helping get LSU basketball back on track.
He had to watch from the bench as the Tigers went 11-21 last year.
“I was out there trying to yell as hard as I could,” Hamilton said. “I knew they needed just a little help. I was trying to give it to them on the practice floor - trying to get them ready. That was probably the hardest thing I’ve done, just having to watch the guys that I’m working hard with and not really being able to give any help.”