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USF basketball player spends three years on bench. Now he’s a top defender

USF forward Isaiah Hawthorne (3) races down the court during the second half of the Dons’ 90-77 win over Texas Southern in a non-conference basketball game at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

CBS college basketball insider Jon Rothstein often remarks on Twitter that the NCAA, “hands out transfer waivers like they’re seedless watermelon at a Fourth of July party.” Any player seeking more playing time can transfer to another program at a moment’s notice.

That opportunity was available for USF’s Isaiah Hawthorne, a bouncy 6-foot-8 forward from Tracy, but after spending three years on the Dons’ bench, he’s finally worked his way into a key role.

“I just keep real people around me,” Hawthorne said of his dedication. “I’ve got a good support system. I have a great group of guys around me.”

Hawthorne played in 17 of USF’s 25 games in the 2020-21 season, averaging 7.1 minutes in those appearances, but saw a diminished role the following year with the successes of transfers Patrick Tapé and Yauhen Massalski in the frontcourt. He appeared in just seven games, and the crowded depth chart meant he couldn’t leverage his way into a bigger role, even as he shot 43% on 3-pointers and 50% overall.

“My mom and my family put good thoughts in my head,” he said. “They told me to see the bigger picture and not run away from my problems.”

USF forward Isaiah Hawthorne (3) dunks during the second half of the Dons' 90-77 win over Texas Southern in a non-conference basketball game at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 7, 2022. | Courtesy Christina Leung

Hawthorne’s loyalty has finally turned into rewards during his fourth season at USF. Between a redshirt season and the extra year granted by the NCAA in the aftermath of the pandemic, he’s still got two more years of eligibility after this season, the last of which could be used as a graduate student. With his redshirt year, he arranged to spread his credits out to graduate across five years.

“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here, on and off the court, growing up as a man,” he said.

On a 2022-23 team still figuring out its rotations in the frontcourt, Hawthorne has been a tremendous boon for the Dons. He scored 10 points in a season-opening win over Texas Southern, and he was vital in a Nov. 16 triumph at Fresno State.

Thanks to Hawthorne’s defense, the Dons outscored the Bulldogs by 12 with him on the court in a 67-60 win, even as he shot just 1-of-7.

“He can play a couple of different positions for us,” head coach Chris Gerlufsen said after defeating the Bulldogs at the Save Mart Center, where Hawthorne and Zane Meeks provided a forward line that kept Fresno State out of the paint for much of the second half.

On that night, Hawthorne played as a power forward with Josh Kunen in foul trouble. Should Gerlufsen want to play with a bigger crew, Hawthorne can play small forward or even shooting guard to accommodate Saba Gigiberia and Volodymyr Markovetskyy, who each stand at 7-foot-2.

USF forward Isaiah Hawthorne (3) defends the perimeter during the first half of the Dons' 90-68 win over Little Rock in a non-conference basketball game at War Memorial Gym in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. | Ethan Kassel/The Standard

The Tracy native was also crucial in USF’s two wins at the Hall of Fame Classic in Kansas City. He scored seven points in just 11 minutes in a come-from-behind win over Northern Iowa, then knocked down a pair of threes the following day to help hold off Wichita State in the championship game. In the Dons’ most recent outing, a Nov. 30 win over Little Rock, he came off the bench but effectively played as much as a starter would, with his 22 minutes clocking in at fifth-most on the team. With 12 points, he was one of five Dons in double figures.

That 90-68 win over the Trojans improved USF’s record to 7-1. The Dons will face Utah State at Chase Center on Sunday, and have challenging non-conference games ahead at UNLV on Dec. 17 and at home against Arizona State on Dec. 21. West Coast Conference play begins at Santa Clara on Dec. 29.