JACKSON, Miss. — Joell Hopkins has made a pretty good case for keeping his newly adopted jersey number.
The Southern forward switched from No. 35 to No. 1 on Saturday because Thomas Pierre-Louis was injured and didn’t need his usual number. Hopkins responded with eight points, a steal and a rebound during a five-minute second-half run in which the Jaguars took a 19-point lead on their way to a 59-53 victory against Grambling.
“One is my favorite number,” Hopkins said. “I’ve always wanted to wear it.”
He’s expected to get another chance to wear the number of his favorite player — former NBA star Tracy McGrady — when Southern (5-11 and 2-1 in the Southwestern Athletic Conference) plays at Jackson State (4-12, 2-1) at 7:30 p.m. Monday.
Hopkins tried to get No. 1 when he arrived before this season, but Pierre-Louis, whose favorite player — NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire — also wears No. 1, didn’t want to surrender it. Hopkins said he plans to revisit the issue when Pierre-Louis returns.
“I’m going to ask if I can keep it,” Hopkins said with a smile, “but I won’t have any problem giving it back.”
Hopkins’ contributions Saturday gave coach Roman Banks a glimpse of what he thought he might be getting from the Florida State transfer at the start of the season. The Jaguars have been looking for consistent scoring from their forwards.
In the season opener against Louisiana Tech, Hopkins started and scored 14 points in 16 minutes, making all five of his field-goal attempts. He started five more games, but was inconsistent, scoring in double figures one more time.
“He’s a small-framed guy (6-foot-7, 205 pounds) and early on against those bigger schools what I tried to do was push him to compete when he might have been outmanned,” Banks said. “I probably asked too much too early of a guy just coming in.
“But I knew I had to push him because we were missing in that area. Now I think I have allowed him to relax a little bit, and he’s slowly getting his brand into our team.”
Hopkins, who has averaged 6.2 points in the 10 games since settling into a reserve role, gave Banks more credit for his recent improvement than blame for his inconsistent start.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform, and I put a little too much on myself (early in the season),” Hopkins said. “It wasn’t Coach putting pressure on me. He helped me through it.”
For the season, Hopkins is averaging 5.8 points and 2.7 rebounds in 17.3 minutes and he’s shooting 50.7 percent from the floor.
“I don’t think he’s a primary guy,” Banks said. “But I think he’s a slasher, and I think he can be a great defensive player and I really think he’s a good offensive rebounder.
“If he keeps getting better (offensively) that will add some offensive punch that we haven’t had (at forward) all season long.”
Jackson State is coming off a 64-54 home victory against Alcorn State on Saturday. Southern is coming off its first road victory of the season.
“We’ve got to build on that for this next road game,” Hopkins said.
Follow Les East on Twitter @EastAdvocate.