Washington State sophomore has developed into one of the most improved players in the nation and is averaging a double-double

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The airplane was due to take off from Pullman in 50 minutes, and still, Josh Hawkinson and his mom Nancy hadn’t heard what they wanted to hear.

Finally, in a conference room in the Washington State athletic department, Ken Bone broached the subject. Even at that, the words seemed to carry the skepticism with which college coaches viewed Hawkinson.

“Well,” said Bone, the former Washington State basketball coach, “would you like to play here?”

Nancy, getting a little impatient: “Are you offering him?”

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Bone: “Yes.”

And so began the college journey of a 6-foot-10 forward from Shorewood High who has gone from a consensus kid-who-couldn’t-play to one of the most improved players in the nation.

Wrapping your arms around that requires another scene in Pullman involving Nancy Hawkinson and her son. This one was last April — Mom’s Weekend at WSU. As every other mother on hand, she was there to spend time with her son or daughter, but found herself competing with Ernie Kent, newly named basketball coach after Bone’s departure.

Kent hadn’t yet had individual meetings with his players, and the one with Hawkinson would prove momentous. As his mother tells it, Kent asked Hawkinson how he envisioned his role in Kent’s first season.

“Well, I need to rebound,” Josh said. “I need to get stronger. I need to set good screens.”

“No,” Kent said, and you can almost hear that ringing rejoinder. “You’re a shooter. You’re a scorer. You’re going to score for me.”

Good call. Hawkinson averages 14.4 points and a Pac-12-leading 10.5 rebounds a game, one of 18 players nationally averaging a double-double, only five of them in the power conferences.

So why did everybody miss on Josh Hawkinson? Was it the fact he’s not much of a jumper, or that his quickness is suspect? Was there something subliminal about the youthful countenance, which always gave his younger sister Carlyn ammunition to kid him as “Baby Face”?

On the week the Cougars host Washington, it would be easy to chide the Huskies for their disinterest in Hawkinson, who was, well, all of five miles away. But if they whiffed on him, they had a lot of company.

“Washington didn’t call once or send a letter,” says Nels Hawkinson, Josh’s father.

Nels names several UW coaches, past and present, and says, “I love the whole staff a lot. He wasn’t their style of player.

“Had he been recruited by them, there’s a decent chance he would have gone there. He loved the Huskies.”

He did, and it wasn’t as if his parents were unknown in basketball circles. Nancy Hawkinson played at UW from 1982-86 as Nancy Hove, including on a 26-2 team. Her husband coached the women at Seattle Pacific from 1982-87, and together, they operate Basketball Travelers, which oversees trips by U.S. teams abroad.

Josh wears No. 24, just as his mother did at UW, where he used to go to her alumni games and keep his own stats. He attended Washington basketball and football games.

“I grew up a UW fan,” Josh said recently at a Pullman restaurant. “Obviously, that’s changed now.”

Urban legend has it that Bone had his hooks into Hawkinson early, seeing something that others didn’t, but that’s only partly true. Indeed, the families have known each other a long time. Ken coached the men at Seattle Pacific, and Josh was a classmate as early as elementary school with one of Bone’s daughters.

But Bone had his reservations. Says Nels at his Shoreline-area business, “Ken said, ‘I talked to 40-some coaches in Western Washington about Josh and they said he can’t play for me. Tell me why you think he can.’ ’’

Evidence that the Cougars weren’t exactly sure what they had on their hands, they steered him toward a program designed to put weight on him before his freshman year so he could operate down low.

“I was like 220 coming out of high school,” Hawkinson says. “I went up to about 250. A lot of it was fat.”

The sloppy version of Hawkinson played a scant 6.4 minutes a game last year, averaging 1.2 points and 1.6 rebounds.

“The old staff foresaw him like Aron Baynes,” Nancy says, recalling the Tony Bennett-era big man. “They thought he could pack 265 or 270.”

Kent’s vision for Hawkinson was that of his ex-Oregon forward, Maarty Leunen, a “stretch four” who could step out and hit the perimeter jumper. Trimmed down to 230, Hawkinson has shown a reliable midrange game, while piecing together a string of 24 successful free throws, and — rare for a big man — committing only 22 turnovers.

It’s not all unalloyed success. Hawkinson has defensive liabilities, especially away from the basket, but overall, it’s been a breakout sophomore season.

“I’ve talked to Ken (Bone) a couple of times since,” Nels says. “We’re great friends. He jokingly goes, ‘Weeell, I guess I probably should have played him a little more.’ ’’

Hawkinson came up in the mold of former Cougar forward Mark Hendrickson, who played both in the NBA and the major leagues. As a pitcher with a fastball in the 90-mph range, Hawkinson had promise, but he liked basketball better.

Besides WSU, he also took visits to San Diego and Santa Clara. Two days after he committed to WSU, Stanford and California invited him to visit, but his mind was made up.

“I fell in love with being a Coug,” he says. “I love every aspect of it.”

It figures Hawkinson wouldn’t be moved off his beliefs. When he was in high school, his dad, figuring Josh might not have an actual job until finishing college, devised a plan whereby his son would “work” 40 hours a week — at two bucks an hour — during the summer, filling out a time sheet for basketball and baseball games, running, rope-jumping and shooting.

The next summer, Nels proposed a raise to $2.50 an hour.

“No,” his son said. “You’re paying for my food and housing.”

Before the year began, Hawkinson limited his goals to one: Making the Pac-12 all-academic team. With a 3.24 GPA in business-related classes, he has a shot.

His parents get to his games regularly, and the Cougar-logoed clothing they wear has some history in Beasley Coliseum. When Bone was dismissed last spring, he gave Nels his WSU gear. Bone’s wife Connie, a former basketball secretary at Washington, left hers with Nancy.

Like Josh’s development at WSU, all of it seems to fit.