“Back in school we used to dream about this every day …”
— Wanya Morris, MotownPhilly
The Olney Eagles Youth Organization has helped children of all ages to participate in football, basketball, cheerleading, baseball, and softball for decades in a small section of Philadelphia. The Olney Rec Center has been a home away from home for generations of people from all walks of life. NBA draft prospect Amir Hinton was one of them.
Hinton led NCAA Division II men’s basketball in scoring last season for Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. He played in 29 games, and averaged 29.4 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4 assists and 2.3 steals, while shooting 49 percent from the field and 34 percent on 3-point shots. The conference player of the year in the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), Hinton decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the NBA draft. He’s been working out for teams, including Minnesota, Sacramento, Portland, Brooklyn, Indiana, New York, Detroit, and Charlotte.
Hinton’s path has humble beginnings, starting on the asphalt courts in Olney.
“Growing up, obviously that was all I had in the neighborhood, the outdoor courts, that was our NBA. It was something fun to do in the summer … it kept me occupied and out of trouble,” recalled Hinton.
Shaw University strikes Philly gold again with guard Amir Hinton
The Olney Eagles program is both a saving grace, and a rite of passage for many of the children in that community. Skip Moore, a Marine veteran and father figure, has been serving as a head coach in football and basketball for the organization since the late ’80s. He remembers vividly when Hinton joined his 12-year-old boys team, saying: “When I first got him, I don’t know what year it was, but he was a sixth-grader, and my first thought of him was, he was a young kid, and he had a little talent, but it had to be brought out of him.
“He had to be taught a lot of things: a good jab step, you know, dribble out of traps, and defenses … You had to teach him those things, like most kids on the team. A lot of them were new young ballplayers who hadn’t played organized basketball.”
Those early lessons and exposure to structure, referees, and a running clock helped to lay a solid foundation for the man he is today.
“He [Coach Skip] was my coach and that was one of my first championships … He taught me a lot, because before that all I had was street basketball. I was learning, jab steps and pump fakes, now I realize those things have helped me all along the way.” At 13, he shared the backcourt with Devon “Ice” Goodman, who earned second-team All-Ivy League honors last season, as the Penn Quakers’ second-leading scorer and fourth in rebounding.
The two eventually found out they were cousins by marriage. Goodman appreciates what he gained from the organization.
“The Olney Eagles, that’s like my second family. Just growing up around them, there was a lot of great talent that came through there, my older brother [Cory Goodman, teammate of CJ McCollum at Lehigh University], Amir, Jesse Morgan. We have that Philly grit … Playing in that environment as a little kid, made us into gritty players, playing in that gym, and that playground, I think that really helped us as we got older.”
He also played alongside Julian Montgomery, who made his hoop dreams come true by working as a locker-room attendant for the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Growing up I never really knew what I was capable of because, you know, I wasn’t as tall as I am now, plus I was overweight, but you know I could still finish strong, box out,” said Montgomery. “When it came to Ice and Amir, I knew they were special, they could shoot and finish strong. The one thing that stood out with Amir … his relentless play, and his leadership, and Ice could give you 30 every single game if he needed to … I knew they would go to the next level.”
Smartphones and social media have made it easier to stay connected, and with Montgomery technically already in the NBA, the door is open for his former teammates to enter, one possibly right after the other.
Soaring with the Olney Eagles
The Olney Eagles are renowned and synonymous with success, yet Hinton is helping to raise that bar even higher in the countdown to the draft.
Philadelphia is his home, and he has long understood that leaving his hometown is a necessary sacrifice to reach his lofty goals. His mother decided to give him the best advantage they could afford him, moving Hinton to Abington Township, a nearby suburb roughly 35 minutes from his roots. In Abington Hinton could attend better schools and live in a safer environment.
“That was one of the toughest things I ever had to do, being so young,” said Hinton. “I had to leave my family and I didn’t know anything about the area. I had to adjust, and wait the process out. I didn’t know what I was going to do … I wasn’t sure if I was going to play basketball, it was totally two different worlds, you have to present yourself differently, and I matured, and grew a little faster.”
He would grow in stature and talent over the years as he was able to combine his small-ball skill set with his 6-foot-5-inch frame after a growth spurt.
“I didn’t realize that I was growing … people had to tell me. I was short, I used to mark myself on the wall at both houses,” Hinton candidly shared about his height. “My cousin stopped me one day and said I grew, I was so hype!” He gained enough recognition at Abington Senior High to get a roster spot on the basketball team at Lock Haven University.
He quickly became a big fish in a small pond, becoming the fastest 1,000-point scorer in school history (42 games) among a laundry list of other accomplishments. He was quickly presented with another decision; this one would lead him further from home, but it would be another necessary piece to his basketball puzzle.
He was the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) East Freshman of the Year, and by his sophomore year (redshirt) he had become a two-time First Team selection.
During his final season, he averaged 23.4 points per game, which ranked him second in the PSAC and 10th in Division II. He scored double figures in each game, including a season-high 47 points against California-Pennsylvania. He also dished out 2.8 assists and 2.4 steals a game, tops is the PSAC.
After two seasons, Hinton compiled 1,227 points and the writing was on the wall.
“I wanted to transfer right after my first year. I always wanted to play Division I college ball,” said Hinton.
“But then I settled in, and I was helping to recruit the incoming freshman class. I needed more exposure, and when I asked for my release, there was a lot going on … a lot of things going on … most of the schools in the PSAC wanted me to play there and my coach didn’t want to release me to do that, and I kind of accepted it [that I couldn’t leave].”
NCAA rules would have required Hinton to sit out a year if he transferred to a Division I program, and that was not his heart’s desire. Like any athlete, he wanted to play. If he jumped to another Division II program, he could suit up immediately, so after some deliberation, he packed his belongings for North Carolina to play for the Shaw University Bears in the CIAA and head coach Joel Hopkins.
In his first and only year, he continued to make a name for himself on and off the court. He earned DII Bulletin Player of the Year, National Association of Basketball Coaches First-Team All-American, First Team All-Atlantic Region DII Conference Commissioners Association, First Team All-CIAA, All-Tournament Team, 2019 conference player of the year, BOXTOROW Player of the Year, and First Team All-American by the Basketball Times.
‘Taking a gamble on myself’
In March, he declared for the NBA draft, and he looks back at his time with the Bears with fondness. “The love, honestly, is what I will miss most,” he said. “Philly gives me a lot of love, but North Carolina gave me love that I’ve never experienced before.
“Taking pictures, signing autographs, everything from the practices, games, and my coach, we connected so well. He’s given me advice and become a mentor.”
Hinton has made every step count through perseverance, risk, and hard work. The Olney Eagles program proved to be an integral cog of cohesiveness, organization, and basketball fundamentals. “I didn’t play AAU, so going to Shaw [University] helped me and I’m glad I went there,” said Hinton.
“It’s probably one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life as far as taking a gamble on myself. I was always trying to figure things out, and do things to help my mother … I didn’t always know how, but I knew I could do things through faith and keeping God first.”
He has ventured thousands of miles on the road less traveled with the aspiration of playing on the highest court in the land.
He is currently the 16th best point guard available, according to the ESPN Draftcast best available by position, and as one NBA scout stated, “the disparity between DI and DII is nothing … there are a lot of DII players that are better than some DI players, especially those further down on the depth chart.”
“I think things will start to change in regard to the recognition of Division II players,” said NBA scout Travis Hyland.
Alan Lu of NBA Scouting Live had this to say after scouting Hinton in a game in February against CIAA foe Livingstone: “Hinton is an athletic, skilled basketball player that can help contribute in a variety of ways, and he could end up thriving as a role player in the NBA.”
Hinton is working every day to prove himself, and make NBA general managers and front-office staff take notice.
The odds are against him, as only three players from historically black schools played in the league last season. Two of them, Kyle O’Quinn (Norfolk State), and Robert Covington (Tennessee State) were signed to guaranteed roster spots, while Tahjere McCall, also from Philadelphia (Tennessee State) was called up from the G League on a 10-day contract for the Brooklyn Nets.
“Philly players always have that chip on their shoulder … never back down from anything, as you can see like Kyle Lowry, small point guard, but he has that bulldog in him,” said Goodman.
His basketball future will take shape in a few days, and no one is more prepared to move and adapt, because he has been doing exactly that for most of his life.
“I have a different story and I want to spread inspiration … I share the things that have worked for me … a lot of guys want to be in this position and for me to be in this position is a blessing … a lot of guys aren’t even here anymore,” Hinton said.
Amir Hinton is on the clock, and his time is now.