Mid-range jumpshot. 3-pointer. Driving layups and dunks.
Caden Hinker has developed a broad offensive arsenal that carried him into an elite club of Mitchell High School boys basketball players. The junior scored a career-high 34 points in Saturday’s 64-46 win over then-Class AA No. 2 Harrisburg, becoming one of six Kernels to ever surpass 1,000 career points.
But Hinker’s dazzling offensive performance was unimaginable to some teammates and coaches, who recall his varsity debut four years ago. He was a gangly eighth-grader who had potential, but lacked enough strength to hit the rim on a 3-point attempt.
The 6-foot-6 forward’s growth has been steady, leading Mitchell in scoring each of the last three seasons and his scoring averages have increased each year as he adds a new move to his repertoire.
Although many felt his success was inconceivable at the beginning of his career, few are surprised by anything Hinker does now. If Mitchell head coach Todd Neuendorf arrives an hour early for a 6 a.m. practice, Hinker is typically right behind him. Stick around for a while after Kernel home games and he is back on the Corn Palace floor to shoot, win or lose.
Hinker has a desire to be great, not because he enjoys the attention that follows, but because basketball has become his greatest passion.
“I love the game, even if it’s just coming out and shooting,” Hinker said. “I want to be a great player, but everyone I talk to about basketball always says the most important thing is that you never stop loving it, because the love fuels everything else.”
Hinker’s father, Clint, put a ball in his hands at an early age, but he was not a Kernel legacy. So unlike many, he did not grow up worshipping at the altar of former Mitchell greats. Perhaps it was just as well, because by time Hinker began to seriously envision playing for the Kernels, the program had long since eroded from dominant teams led by Bart Friedrick and Scott Morgan in the 1980s and by Tyson Theeler and Mike Miller in the 1990s.
Following a winless 2016-2017 campaign, Neuendorf was hired to rebuild the program and Hinker fell in love with his coaching style. Hinker wanted to be part of the eventual resurgence and he found a coach that could match his passion for basketball.
After one season with the new coaching staff, Hinker’s game exploded, going from scoring 10 points in four appearances as an eighth-grader to leading the team with 16.2 points per game and 49 3-pointers as a freshman.
“He was ahead of where we thought he’d be and we didn’t want to rush him, but we had to have him out there because he was a presence,” Neuendorf said. “He was a way that we could score the basketball. We went and played (Sioux Falls) Lincoln in the region game and Northern (State University) was there watching a couple guys from Lincoln. On the way home, the Northern coach called and started asking about Hinker. That kind of started it. We’re fortunate that he’s getting better and better.”
A work ethic that never wanes
When Hinker led Mitchell in scoring as a freshman, he was already 6-6, but still had little girth to his body and his athleticism was limited. He improved his mid-range game a season ago, but after opponents began to focus defensive game plans centered on him, Hinker knew he needed more.
As Hinker’s scoring average increased the last two seasons, his 3-point attempts have decreased and his free throw attempts have increased. Added athleticism has resulted in more frequent shots off penetration, which in turn creates more fouls from smaller defenders, as the big bruisers in the paint can no longer keep pace.
The improvements have come from seemingly always having a ball in his hands. Hinker has spent his summers on the AAU circuit with SD Attack, while never missing Mitchell summer workouts and camps. In fact, Hinker could not recall the last time he went one day without touching a basketball, even lamenting about not being able to get into a gymnasium on Christmas — he still practiced his ball handling at home.
The work ethic of players such as Hinker and Zane Alm — who has also worked to improve exponentially during the last three seasons — has transferred to the rest of the program, as the current group of seniors have gone from one win as freshmen to a 13-3 campaign this season.
“I think a lot of people look up to him, especially the guys that are younger than him,” MHS senior Ben Helleloid said. “He’ll be the one to come and grab someone after practice. He started grabbing Lucas (Moller) and they started shooting every day after practice. I think it’s made a lot of people better just seeing how much time he puts in.”
Hinker has grown accustomed to eyeballs locked on him, whether it be from opponents, teammates or fans. The pressure of being the go-to scorer or helping inch the Kernels toward regaining status as a state power does not consume him. Hinker’s greatest pressure is put on himself.
Neuendorf notes Hinker’s belief that every shot that leaves his hand should go through the net is unrealistic and it engulfed him midway through the season. In a 46-44 upset by Pierre on Feb. 2, Hinker went 6 of 16 from the field, including 1-for-8 from 3-point range. His frustration was visible and it caused uncharacteristic mistakes.
A mixture of honest criticism and confidence-boosting quickly rebooted Hinker and it resulted in three consecutive scorching performances. During the last three games, Hinker has averaged 25.7 points per game on 60% shooting, all while carrying more of the scoring load as opponents hunker down on Alm in the post.
“I know there’s always another level, another gear that I can be so much better,” Hinker said. “Sometimes I get in my own head, but (Neuendorf) does a good job. He’s really supportive of me — sometimes he just talks me down. That really is helpful, but he also knows where I want to be and how good I want to be and keeps pushing me.”