When Casey Hughes ’07 sneaks a steal from an opponent and takes it to the hoop or slips along the baseline only to leap into the air for a picture-perfect alley-oop, his opponents realize that at his best Hughes is an electrifying force to be reckoned with.
Although Hughes is not one of the veterans of the Yale squad, the small forward is already making an impact on their season. Hughes’ strongest area is rebounding, where he ranks second on the team behind center Dominick Martin ’06, with 25 offensive and 70 defensive boards. But whether he is beating out a taller opponent for a board or making a steal, Hughes uses his considerable athleticism to the Bulldogs’ advantage.
“I’m more athletic than most of the players on the court,” Hughes said. “When we are getting fast breaks I can get a lot of easy baskets. I use my athletic ability instead of working for things at half court.”
Hughes began his basketball days in New Haven, where he grew up. He attended Hamden Hall, a small private high school, and played basketball for the four years he was there. Hughes said life on the court was relatively easy for him then.
“I could go coast to coast pretty much every play,” Hughes said. “I was one of the taller guys and one of the more skilled and athletic. We didn’t play the greatest competition, I’ll admit, but I could do whatever I wanted.”
In his sophomore year, Hughes started wearing a headband, one of his trademarks ever since. He said he tried playing without it once during his freshman year at Yale, but had a bad game and has not played without it since.
Hughes also developed something else in high school that has become a significant part of his life on and off the court — prayer.
“I’m a pretty good Christian,” Hughes said. “I pray before every game. If I am playing in front of a ton of people, it can be intimidating, but if I have God in front of me I can do it. And if I don’t do awesome [in a game], I’ve still got God.”
Hughes needed some of the strength he found through prayer as he transitioned to basketball at Yale. According to Hughes, some people thought his transition to varsity college ball would be harder for him, and in some ways it was more challenging. He said he was not that happy with his first year with the Bulldogs.
“My expectations were high, and I disappointed myself last year,” Hughes said. “I expected more. I was no longer more skilled, and I couldn’t do things easier. I still think I am adjusting. Maybe next year it will click for me.”
Hughes rode the bench some last year, but he also played in 24 of the Elis’ 27 games. After being the star at every level he had played, he said it was hard to sit out and even entertained some thoughts of quitting.
“It was looking bleak at first,” Hughes said. “I wasn’t going to quit, but you have feelings like ‘forget this.'”
He said the turning point for him was after the Elis’ game with Niagara, in which he dislocated his finger. He said he felt like his career was going down the tubes, but then he went to meet with Yale head coach James Jones.
“[Jones] said he could use me during Ivy play, and I was inspired to play better,” Hughes said. “Whenever I came off the bench I tried to get some energy and make something happen.”
Since then, Hughes said life at Yale has gotten better. Besides playing basketball, he said he enjoys the University because he is not treated differently from anyone else.
“I used to get treated kind of differently in high school, but now I’m just like everybody else,” Hughes said. “I don’t like special treatment. Everyone at Yale does something well. I like being a normal kid on campus.”
Now that Hughes has had some time to adjust to his life as a Bulldog, he has been able to improve his level of play.
He has still had some difficulties this year, however. Last year he made 52 percent of his three-point shots, but this season, he has only hit 21.4 percent from behind the arc. Hughes said he would like to change this, as well as improve his free-throw shooting.
“If I shoot better, my numbers will be better, and I’ll do what the team needs me to do,” Hughes said. “If I improve little by little I can push us to wins. I want to continue to do what Coach Jones wants me to do, and he wants me to be patient, play tough defense and hit the glass.”
Hughes has had more of an opportunity this year since last year he played behind two seniors last year, Jones said. He said Hughes gives the team more energy.
“He does a little bit of everything,” Jones said. “He worked hard this summer. He got a lot stronger and developed his ball handling and the ability to get to the rim. In transition he does a great job scoring and putting pressure on the defense.”
Captain Alex Gamboa ’05 said Hughes is not only the most athletic player on the team but also a great guy.
“He is so strong, has great jumping ability and is unbelievably quick,” Gamboa said. “He brings a new dimension to the team. He is one of the best defensive players. I have also never heard him say a bad thing. He is down to earth and always smiles.”
Martin, who leads the team in rebounds, said it is great to have an aggressive player like Hughes work with him to get the boards.
“[Hughes] gets a lot of the hustle ones too, which makes a big difference,” Martin said.
With the Bulldogs heading into the bulk of their Ivy League schedule, Hughes said he would like to see them continue to play fast and strong. He said their athleticism is an advantage over the rest of the Ancient Eight.
“We are dynamic this year,” Hughes said. “We do best when we run the court. We can run and take advantage of our athleticism. We have already played really athletic teams, so we should be able to run the teams in the league.”