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Beyond the slam dunks, Darius Hannah embraces his role

Darius Hannah throws down a windmill dunk against Illinois State. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics

Darius Hannah is used to the big play.

It’s hard not to be when you’re featured on SportsCenter in just your second collegiate game or when you’re flying above the rim as early as seventh grade. And when these plays are made in every single game, it feels like another day at the office.

“Yeah, it’s kind of a regular now,” Hannah said. “But I’m just trying to play the best basketball I can.”

Fans see the thunderous slams that ignite the Carver Arena crowds and the emphatic swats that make opponents think twice about roaming the lane, but the dynamic plays only tell half the story. Growing up on Milwaukee’s north side, which boasts one of the highest crime rates in the United States, Hannah has never had it easy.

The senior forward played a lot with his cousins at the park growing up, eventually moving up to an AAU team coached by his uncle. His dad was also a prominent basketball player in his youth, motivating Hannah to become even better than his pops.

By his sophomore year of high school, Hannah was putting people on posters.

“My high school coach used to let me dunk on him just so I could get used to it,” Hannah said. “I just did it in a game one time and I never turned back.”

Coming to Peoria as the No. 6 recruit out of Wisconsin, the transition to college did not affect Hannah despite the pressure it added. Embracing that pressure carried over to this season, where Hannah is seeing the most minutes of his collegiate career.

“Everybody on my team, all my coaches and my teammates, they all know what I’m capable of so I shouldn’t put any pressure on myself at all,” Hannah said. “Just go out there, do what I can do, play my role and be the best I can for my teammates.”

Someone who’s seen Hannah’s growth firsthand is junior guard Connor Hickman, who’s spent all three of his years as a Brave on the court with Hannah.

“I know what to expect out of Darius now every day and I don’t think I could say that about Darius two years ago,” Hickman said. “Just seeing how he’s matured and how we’ve been able to go through this process together, it’s been really fun to see him grow into a confident player that we all know he can be and develop his game.”

Hannah is one of the veterans on the team, joining senior Connor Linke as the only Braves who have played the past four years. When he came in for the 2020-21 season, Hannah made his presence known right away, leading all Valley freshmen in blocks and leading his team in field goal percentage.

Despite this, he never really got his chance to fully shine. He had highlights, such as recording seven blocks against Southeast Missouri State to tie the second most in a single game in Bradley history, but the minutes did not match up to the talent.

Now, with program transfers freeing up the post, Hannah is getting his chance – and fully embracing it.

“It’s a guy that’s stayed loyal, he’s worked his way up and worked his way up in minutes and I love seeing young men grow and be able to reap the benefits of all the hard work they put in,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said.

More than just dunks

Hannah is known for his high-flying dunks that make it onto the highlight reels, but this year he’s become more of a playmaker. Through eight games, all as a starter, Hannah leads the team in rebounds per game (7.4) while also averaging career highs in points (12.5) and assists (2.3). Both of those marks are third on the team.

Even with his new responsibilities, Hannah has not lost the aspects of his game that got him here. He leads the team in blocks (10) and is second in steals (13) while shooting over 65% from the field.

The uptick in minutes has led to an uptick in quality of play, and it’s something his head coach has seen firsthand.

“He’s always been a very talented player, a very good one-on-one player, but I think he’s physically gotten stronger,” Wardle said. “His right hand has gotten better. His basketball IQ has gone up where I think he understands our system, understands how to win at this level and I think all of that has brought him a lot of confidence to be very productive on the court now.”

Darius Hannah boxes out a defender. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Hannah’s ability to distribute has proved to be a key to the Braves’ hot start this season. Against Tarleton State, where the Braves tied their third-highest mark in school history for made treys, Hannah dished out a career-high six assists. Against UAB, he distributed five.

“He takes a lot of pressure off of us [guards],” Hickman said. “It’s good to know I can throw the ball into Darius and he’s either gonna score or he’s gonna get somebody an open shot. A lot of good things come when he has the ball. Having that trust in him to be able to create for us, it really helps us out a lot.”

This development might be new to Braves fans, but even in high school Hannah was stuffing the stat sheets. As a senior, he averaged 17.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and a staggering 3.9 blocks per game. Add to that 3.6 assists and 1.6 steals, and Bradley acquired an all-around threat to anchor the middle of their lineup.

Hannah had a brief introduction to the big stage last season when former Brave standout Rienk Mast was sidelined with injury, allowing Hannah to start the first six games. During that time, he averaged just over eight points and four rebounds a game, leading the Braves to a 3-3 record. This time as a starter showed Hannah that he needed to improve.

“Just getting stronger and getting more confident,” Hannah said. “And that’s what I did during the offseason and I developed that within myself and within my teammates and coaches.”

This improvement has paid off, as Hannah is playing the best basketball of his collegiate career at a time when the Braves need it the most.

“Darius is why you coach, to be honest,” Wardle said. “He’s matured physically, he’s matured mentally, he’s got more confidence, he understands more who he is and the player he is. That maturity helps you become a better player, and you have better self awareness and he definitely has that.”

Embracing the grind

It took a while for Hannah to get his shot on the Hilltop.

After playing in 26 games as a freshman, that number dropped down to 19 for Hannah’s sophomore season before jumping back up to 35 as a junior. He had to sit behind a legion of big men, a group that included the likes of Mast and 7-foot-1 Ari Boya.

While other athletes may see this time on the bench as a hindrance to their growth, Hannah saw it as a blessing. He wanted to stick it out and embrace the journey, something that is becoming less and less common in the NCAA as student-athletes everywhere jump ship for the transfer portal at the first sign of trouble.

“It’s kind of different,” Hannah said. “Everybody wants to rush to play and no one wants to develop behind the coaching and take the baby steps in order to be great, and I feel like that’s what I did here.”

Hannah offers a template of what happens when players do stick with it, as he is now a focal point of this year’s Braves team and has improved each year he’s been on the Hilltop.

Darius Hannah rises up for a block. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

“I think that’s a great example for a lot of people who when tough times come or things aren’t going their way they want to point the finger, they want to make excuses or they leave, or they just think the grass is greener somewhere else,” Wardle said. “He has kind of done it the old school way and is reaping the benefits and the rewards of that and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Hannah is used to dealing with adversity, from growing up with it in the crime-ridden neighborhoods of Milwaukee and leading into high school, where he suffered an ACL injury his junior year. Going through that was a struggle that Hannah never thought he’d have to endure.

But the coaching staff didn’t give up on him, ultimately leading to his decision to come to Peoria.

“I think it was all a mental thing and just wanting to work hard and rehab and rehab and rehab and rehab just to get stronger and better but it was definitely a struggle,” Hannah said. “My family being there for me, the coaching staff here they called me often, came down to see me a few times even though I had the injury so that’s what helped.”

Now, Hannah is repaying the program for sticking with him by sticking with them, and his head coach couldn’t be prouder of the player and the man he has become.

“In life you’re gonna have ups and downs, all of us,” Wardle said. “I think he always knew the benefits and prosperity will happen if you put the work in. The outcomes will be there and he is a young man that’s proven that.”

Beyond the court

You wouldn’t know it by the way he scowls following one of his posters or the roar he lets out after making a big-time block, but Hannah’s personality can be described as goofy and easygoing. Hickman relates to him in that way, and their similarities spill onto the court.

“Darius is a pretty laid back guy, we’re pretty laid back guys when we’re on the court you know, that kind of translates,” Hickman said. “But we also have that intensity about us. [When we] make a good play we’re smiling, we’re goofing around, but we’re also locked in at the same time.”

This mellow personality helps Hannah connect with his teammates, especially off the court. He’s embraced the role of a veteran, and it’s helping elevate Bradley to the next level.

“He’s always been a smart player and he’s always had smart things to say when it comes to being on a basketball court, but I think he’s grown as a leader off the court too,” Wardle said.

Hannah’s team-first mentality is evident, both in the way he conducts himself and the way he plays. If the career high assist numbers don’t speak for themselves, then the on-court leadership should do the trick.

“He’s way more vocal than he’s ever been and the guys listen to him,” Wardle said. “He’s got a lot of the guys’ respect because his work ethic has grown and he’s put the work in and he’s put the time in. He’s become one of our vocal leaders and a guy that the young guys look up to.”

All in all, it’s been a grind for Hannah to get to the place that he’s at now. Yet, it’s a journey he wouldn’t trade for anything.

“I think the best part about Darius is he hasn’t sat and pointed a finger at anyone,” Wardle said. “He hasn’t made excuses, he hasn’t sat and thought ‘woe is me.’ I’m just going to work harder. I’m gonna work harder, I’m gonna grow, I’m gonna commit to the people around me and my teammates and put the work in.”

You can catch Hannah and the rest of the Braves in action on ESPN+ on Tuesday at 6 p.m. against Akron.
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