"The reasoning behind going back is just feeling more comfortable with the start of my NBA journey," Hawkins said. "I would have been a draft pick, but regarding the contracts, two-way deals -- nothing is guaranteed with those. Having another year of school would allow me to have a better start to my NBA career, hopefully getting a first-round, guaranteed contract."
The return of Hawkins -- one of the most versatile big men in college basketball who led Illinois in rebounding, assists and blocks -- caps off an important day for the Illini, who also saw their leading scorer, Terrence Shannon Jr., announce his intention to return to Champaign.
Hawkins, previously the No. 54 prospect in ESPN's draft rankings, intrigued NBA teams with his ability to initiate his team's offense at 6-foot-10 on one end, defend point guards on the other and knock down 3-pointers when operating off the ball, giving him unique versatility for the modern game.
Scouts will want to see him find more consistency with his outside shot (28% on 3-pointers), continue to add bulk to his 224-pound frame and become a more consistent player on both ends of the floor to ultimately be worthy of being a first-round pick in 2024, which Hawkins says is his goal for next season.
"NBA teams say they want me to be more aggressive," Hawkins said. "Teams have mentioned confidence. Playing with amnesia. Forgetting about missed shots and just play my game. I am an elite shooter, but I didn't show that last year, so being more consistent with that will be important."
Hawkins, the Illini's third-leading scorer, will again pair up with Shannon, who transferred from Texas Tech last summer, for a second season at Illinois, hoping to build on last year's campaign in which the team went 11-9 in the Big Ten and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The team also returns starting center Dain Dainja, versatile wing Ty Rodgers, shooter Luke Goode, combo guard Sencire Harris and reeled in several transfers in Southern Illinois' Marcus Domask, Oregon's Quincy Guerrier and Utah Valley's Justin Harmon, along with four-star freshmen Amani Hansberry and Dravyn Gibbs-Lawhorn.
"I anticipate better dynamics and a better understanding of how we play," Hawkins said. "We'll come together more as a team. Last year we had a lot of new guys, freshmen and young guys. We have a better idea now of how to win. The goal is to compete for another Big Ten title, which would be my third one in four years here, that's my goal."
Jonathan Givony is an NBA draft expert and the founder and co-owner of DraftExpress.com, a private scouting and analytics service utilized by NBA, NCAA and international teams.