BY MATT CRAIG | Ball State Sports Link | The Athletic
This story was originally published at The Fieldhouse, The Athletic’s national college basketball platform.
When Aubrey Dawkins finished his career at Palo Alto (Calif.) High School, he didn’t know what he was going to next. He wasn’t choosing between blue-blood college basketball programs, as one might expect from the son of Duke legend Johnny Dawkins. Despite a growth spurt of nearly 10 inches during his high school years to 6-foot-4, Aubrey was rail thin and, at 17, young for his grade. He graduated without a single scholarship offer. “Basketball could’ve been done for me right then and there,” he says.
Then an opportunity arose for a postgraduate year at New Hampton School in New Hampshire. Why not give it one more year, he thought. The decision paid off, in the form of two additional inches of height and some much-needed physical maturation. Eventually, a few Division I scholarship offers followed.
That validation was significant. Aubrey, the youngest of the four Dawkins children, was to become the first college athlete among them. Outrunning their father’s massive shadow was no easy feat, and many assumed Aubrey would want to stay home and go to Stanford, where Johnny was the head coach. “[But] I wanted to go somewhere, make my own name, be my own player, rather than be Johnny Dawkins’ son,” he says. After John Beilein came in with a late offer from Michigan, Dawkins committed the Wolverines in April 2014.
Johnny and Aubrey may be related, but their games are different. Johnny was 6-2, a left-handed speedster with a shifty handle who could score from anywhere. He was an All-American at Duke, and he set a school scoring record that stood for 20 years before going on to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft. Aubrey is over 6-6 now, a right-hander with explosive leaping ability and a deadly outside shooter but not a ton of game in between.
Beilein brought Dawkins to Ann Arbor based on his long-term potential. “We just knew that he would get it and embrace his growth process,” Beilein says. “You could just see the DNA was there, and that he understood college basketball.” Dawkins turned in three 20-point performances as a freshman, but also played a total of 20 minutes in a pair of NCAA Tournament games as a sophomore. As he saw his playing time dwindle and his role limited to that of a spot-up shooter, he thought about transferring. He also began to consider how fun it would be to play for his dad. “It was in my mind, but I hadn’t told anybody,” Aubrey says. “At that point, I feel like I had done enough on my own, where it’s not like ok he’s just going there because his dad’s the coach.”
There was one problem. Johnny Dawkins didn’t have a job. In February 2016, he was let go by Stanford.
But in late March, Johnny was hired to coach Central Florida. A conversation soon followed between father and son, but the “recruitment” didn’t go quite how you’d expect. “I said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to take this job with you thinking that if I get this position you have to come play for your dad,” says Johnny. He urged Aubrey to take a few days to make sure this was what he wanted.
A week later, Aubrey told his dad he wanted to join him at Central Florida. “He was like, ‘Okay, good decision,’” remembers Aubrey. “That was really it.”
Aubrey spoke with the Michigan coaching staff and was granted his release on April 6, just 15 days after Johnny Dawkins was introduced at UCF. “It was a great opportunity for him at absolutely the wrong time for us,” says Beilein, whose 2014 recruiting class was hit with three transfers in the same offseason. But Beilein understood how special the family connection could be. His son, Patrick, played for him at West Virginia from 2002-2006. “Having been able to coach my own son, I knew exactly what was about to happen,” Beilein says. “But we loved that kid.”
Some of Johnny Dawkins’ most cherished memories were of his young kids coming to the Stanford gymnasium after the Cardinal players had cleared out (and “after [they] finished their homework” Johnny is quick to add). Those visits invariably included one-on-one games against dad. “He never let me win,” Aubrey says.
After Aubrey decided to transfer to UCF, Johnny sought advice from UCLA coach Steve Alford and others who had coached their sons. All eyes will be on him, they said. His demeanor will set the tone. Father and son had several subsequent conversations to outline the rules of engagement. “I wanted to make sure that he understood that in the gym, I’m not dad, I’m coach,” Johnny says, “I told him, You can’t go around calling me dad.”
Aubrey was one of six transfers or redshirts on the Knights’ roster who were unable to play last season, and they gave the seven eligible scholarship players all they could handle in practice. That competitiveness pushed the team to 24 wins, the second most in school history. (UCF joined Division 1 in 1984.)
This year, expectations have been raised as the team returns leading scorer B.J. Taylor as well as 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall alongside the influx of transfers. Aubrey will certainly provide the outside shooting, but he is excited to showcase his expanded repertoire. “I can do more, I want to do more,” he says.
No matter what happens, the tight-knit Dawkins family is happy to be back together. Two of Aubrey’s older siblings, Sean and Jillian, have since moved to Orlando, with Johnny applying the pressure to his oldest, Blair, to join them. Aubrey says he’s texting or talking with family members every day now, something he didn’t do as often at Michigan. And Johnny knows how to get Aubrey over to the family home. “Whenever my wife is cooking a meal,” he says, “you don’t have to worry, he’s going to show up.”
On the court and off, the pair has grown closer. “I know him on a different level,” Aubrey says. “I’m 22 years old so it’s a little more man to man type stuff.” The stage is set for a memorable winter. “As good of a person as I thought he was, and believe me I thought he was a really terrific young man, he’s even better,” Johnny says. “And it’s made me really proud as a parent.”
(Photos courtesy of UCF)