Savannah native Aaron Hughes, a multi-sport star in high school who decided to follow his dream of playing college basketball — even though it isn’t his best sport — wasn’t even sure if he could win a spot on the team during summer tryouts, but five months later, he’s the Rams’ starting point guard. (email@example.com)
ALBANY — All Albany State basketball coach Chris Cameron could promise was an opportunity.
But that’s all Aaron Hughes needed.
The 2012 grad of Windsor Forest High School in Savannah walked on to the Albany State basketball team this year with nothing more than a chance to make the roster, but he has emerged as the starting point guard for the Rams just one month into his freshman season.
It’s been hard work and desire that turned Hughes into ASU’s newest starter — traits that Cameron saw in the 5-foot-11 point guard the moment he stepped on the court for a spring tryout.
“We didn’t need any more point guards, but I gave him an opportunity (anyway),” ASU’s men’s basketball coach said. “We worked him against some of our guys, and when I saw how hard he played and his defense, that impressed me. I told him that if he wanted to walk on that we would give him an opportunity. I saw something in him that I liked.”
Hughes, a multi-sport star in high school who turned down football scholarships to pursue basketball, also had basketball offers from Lander University (S.C.), Thomas University and Anderson University (S.C.).
But the Savannah native wanted to stay closer to home, and Cameron was willing to give him a shot despite a roster already full of point guards, including former Thomasville star and fellow freshman Trey Gosier and sophomore Jacolby Neloms (Tift County).
“When I came on my visit, coach Cameron said that if I felt like I could come in and take a spot and earn playing time, it was always there for me,” Hughes said. “I knew in my mind that that was what I had to do.”
Because of an injury to Gosier, Hughes is now the first walk-on to start as a true freshman since Cameron joined the coaching staff in 2001. Hughes is averaging just 4.6 points per game, but he recently scored a career-high 11 against Carver Bible College on Dec. 7 to lead the Rams (1-5) to their first win of the season.
Making the most of opportunities is nothing new to Hughes.
It’s why The Savannah Morning News named him the “Most Dedicated Athlete of the Year” in 2012 and why his high school football coach said, “You couldn’t ask for a better player.”
“Once he gets a goal in mind, he’s focused on completing it,” Knights football coach Jason Roundtree told The Morning News after Hughes won the award.
Hughes fell in love with basketball at an early age, but most of his success in high school came on the gridiron, where he played quarterback and earned Region 3-AAAAA Player of the Year honors as a senior after throwing for a school-record 1,844 yards and 15 touchdowns and running for 13 more scores and a team-high 765 yards.
College football programs, including Air Force and Albany State, were drooling over the dual-threat star, but instead of following in the footsteps of his father, a former running back at the University of Tennessee, Hughes chose basketball.
When given the choice as a child, he always chose basketball.
“I guess that was because I wasn’t very good at basketball, which made me want to work for it,” he said. “I was really good in football (as a child), but as a basketball player I would say I was too fast for the ball. I would try to run and dribble but couldn’t do both at the same time.”
Hughes’ perseverance and hard work — traits he said were instilled in him very young — shined through, and he emerged as a composed point guard, capable of handling both the ball and his emotions.
“If somebody is pressuring me, I can handle it,” Hughes said. “I think I have taken that from my life and applied it to basketball.”
Despite his age, Hughes’ composure has made him a leader on the ASU basketball team, Cameron said.
“He works hard every day,” Cameron said. “He is one of those guys who isn’t very vocal but will lead by example. He is going to lead by working hard and being first in sprints. He is very competitive. I think that is what has put him in position to be the starting point guard for us.”
Gosier started the year at point for the Rams, but two games into the season in a matchup against Valdosta State, the Thomasville native went down with a torn meniscus and needed surgery that will keep him out of the lineup until mid-January.
Three days later in Pensacola, Fla., before a game against the University of West Florida, Cameron sat down with Hughes.
“I found out I was going to start a few minutes before the game, and when coach Cameron told me all I could do was smile,” Hughes said. “But I had to come down to reality pretty quickly and focus on the game. After the game I couldn’t wait to call my parents and tell them what happened, but they were watching the game (online) and already knew. They just told me how proud of me they were.”
In the three games since Hughes has joined the starting lineup, he is averaging 6.3 points, 3.7 assists and 2.7 steals. Against Carver Bible College, he shot 4-of-9 from the field with five assists, five rebounds and four steals — all career-highs.
“That last game was indicative of his transformation,” Cameron said. “He didn’t look like a freshman at all. He was a huge part of us winning. He was getting people shots. He was doing a good job of finding everybody.”
And he might just have found a permanent spot on Albany State’s roster.
“There’s always that potential,” Cameron said about Hughes possibly earning a scholarship for next year. “That was our initial conversation when we told him we were out of money and couldn’t offer him anything more than the opportunity to compete for playing time.”
Cameron said he will re-evaluate his starting point guard position when Gosier comes back from injury and last year’s returning starter Jaren Harris becomes eligible next month, but until then Hughes is “pretty much running the show.”
“To be a freshman and to walk on and be able to start for a college program is big,” the coach said.
And the bigger the challenge, the harder Hughes pushes himself.
“It goes back to high school,” Hughes said. “I always worked for everything, so it didn’t come any different in college. It’s about working to be successful.”