Kevin Hervey’s transformative college basketball moment might have come in practice.
At least that’s what his head coach thinks.
During the summer before his sophomore year at UT Arlington, as his team was preparing to head to the Bahamas for the preseason, he was looking to elevate his game.
There was one problem, according to UTA head coach Scott Cross: for a guy who was 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Hervey was soft on defense. So, Cross and his coaching staff picked on their team’s most talented player with the perfect remedy.
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The drill is called ‘6 vs. 4 Tough Guy.’ On top of playing four-on-four, the defenders have to fight through two managers harassing them with blocking pads. If the defenders don’t get three stops in 15 minutes, they have to run ... a lot.
The exercise is tilted almost comically in favor of the offense. But on one particular summer afternoon, Hervey almost single-handedly led his foursome to three stops. Hervey then went on offense and requested UTA’s four best defensive players. For the entire 15 minutes the rising sophomore imposed his will on his teammates with an array of post moves and jump shots.
“His eyes kind of changed in that moment, and to me, that was when the light bulb went on and I realized this guy is special,” Cross said. “At that point, I thought: he’s got a chance to go to the NBA.”
So, how did a borderline projected second-round NBA draft pick end up in the Sun Belt Conference?
Hervey’s height, length and ability to knock down long jump-shots made the Arlington Bowie High School product a desirable target for dozens of Division I programs around the country. Heading into his senior year, UTA and Richmond had already sent him scholarship offers. But when he tore his ACL in his final high school season, most schools stopped calling.
“In high school I thought it was over,” Hervey said. “I had never done anything like that before. I didn’t know what to expect or what would happen from there.”
The rest of the interested programs told the three-star recruit he’d have to redshirt, which meant sitting out almost two straight seasons. Only UTA promised him a chance to play right away and that’s a big reason why he ended up in Arlington.
As a freshman, Hervey had a solid campaign, starting in half his team’s games. The only time he’s ever been nervous on the court was when he had to match up against Kentucky and future No. 1 overall pick Karl Anthony-Towns at Rupp Arena early in the season, an experience he calls "incredible and surreal."
Hervey really took a massive leap toward achieving his elite potential during his sophomore year. Through the first 16 games of the 2015-2016 season, he was among the conference leaders in scoring and rebounding.
In his third game of that season, Hervey scored a team-high 18 points in the Mavericks’ 73-68 upset of Ohio State.
“We went into that game unsure if we were going to win or not, or, at least I was (unsure),” he said. “Our coach had confidence, but it felt similar to Kentucky. But when we got out there on the floor we realized we could play with them.”
In January of 2016, Hervey’s rapid ascent was once again knocked dramatically of course when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. The recovery process was difficult, but he knew what he had to do to get back on the court. He even gained some perspective along the way.
“When you sit out, you really get to observe the game,” he said. “I think I play with better pace and patience. When I attack the cup, I attack it smarter rather than out-of-control.”
Cross also credits Hervey’s attitude and upbringing as the driving force behind the forward’s resiliency.
“This might be the best thing that ever happened to him. This will ensure he graduates and gets his degree and stops worrying about all the NBA stuff,” Hervey’s father, Charles Hervey, told Cross.
“Most parents are just seeing the dollar signs with their kid,” Cross said.
As a junior, he picked up right where he left off before his second major knee injury. By season’s end, he was named the Sun Belt Conference’s Player of the Year and received first team All-Conference honors. He was also named an honorable mention All-American by the Associated Press. What mattered most to Hervey was what that team achieved together. UTA produced a 27-9 overall record, as well as the best record in the conference (14-4).
This season has been a more of a challenge. The scouting report on the Mavericks is that they falter for long stretches in the second-half, an assertion that Hervey reluctantly agrees with.
Hervey’s individual game, though, continues to improve. In UTA’s final regular season game, he illustrated the evolution of his long-range shooting and his willingness to serve as his team’s closer by draining a game-winning three pointer against Texas State on the road.
The player and his coach also agree that his ability to defend is the area of his game that has improved the most. A few weeks ago the Mavericks hosted Georgia Southern and the conference’s fourth-leading scorer, Tookie Brown.
Cross made the somewhat unusual decision to assign Hervey the task of defending the smaller, quicker guard. Throughout the contest, the UTA big man used his length to his advantage. By the end of the night, Brown finished with just 9 points on 4-of-10 shooting.
Cross admits that the NBA talk has occasionally served as a distraction. At the same time, the coach believes his star player has handled all of the news and social media coverage as well as he possibly could have.
Hervey, meanwhile, said that his family, closest friends and especially his coaches knew that the best place for him to thrive as a college player was at UTA.
“He (Cross) has helped me keep my focus off of that because he’s the ultimate competitor, and I am too,” Hervey said. “I focus on beating whoever is in front of me, whoever we’re playing that night. It’s helped me a lot, because the NBA stuff can be overwhelming.”
Right now, Hervey's greatest desire is for this team to claim that elusive conference title and an automatic bid to the NCAA at this week's Sun Belt Tournament down in New Orleans.
Still, his professional future remains etched somewhere in the back of his mind.
"I want to play basketball and I want to make money playing basketball, wherever that is,” he said. “I’ve torn my ACL twice and I am the ultimate competitor. Whether I am competing against the greatest players in the world or the greatest players across the water, it doesn’t necessarily matter to me.”
This spring, Hervey is set to graduate with a degree in education management. Once his professional basketball career is over, whether that’s 10 months or 10 years from now, that degree should help him as he progresses to the next phase in his life.
“I’ve been around basketball my whole life, so I want to pursue coaching, preferably at the college level,” he said.
“You can be a father figure to a young man and help him change his life around. Coming here has taught me so much about life and basketball. How to carry yourself and how to be a proper man. I want to be able to do that for young kids as well.”