FRESNO - Please excuse Braxton Huggins if he just wants to smile.
The Bakersfield native and Mira Monte High School graduate, who is in his final year playing NCAA Division I college basketball, is right where he wants to be.
After three successful seasons at New Mexico State, and a challenging year off from basketball because of the NCAAs mandatory transfer rule, Huggins is having his best season to date as a redshirt senior at Fresno State.
Much went into his decision to leave the New Mexico State program knowing he had just one year of playing eligibility remaining. But it's all panned out perfectly.
“Been worth the wait,” Huggins said. “I’ve been putting in a lot of work this whole year off, working on what I need to work on to get to the next level and to try and go to the (NCAA) Tournament one more time before my college career is over.”
Huggins is tied for second in the Mountain West Conference in scoring, averaging 19.3 points per game. He's also been one of the top 3-point shooters in the MWC, making 51 of 123 shots from beyond the arc.
Huggins' best statistical season to this point came at New Mexico State during 2016-17 campaign, when he averaged 13.7 points per game as a junior. The Aggies won a Western Athletic Conference title that year and earned a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
When head coach Paul Weir resigned at the end of that season, however, Huggins knew it was time for a change. The Bulldogs checked off enough boxes to qualify as the proper destination to finish his college playing days.
Huggins knew he would have to sit out a year if he chose to transfer. He said it was more difficult than he anticipated because of how much he missed the game. All of that is over now, however, and was well worth it.
“I love this game so much and this game has done so much for me,” Huggins said. “I owe it so much. Every second I am out there I enjoy it and I try to enjoy it because I know I’m not going to be able to play someday....When I am out there, I am going to have as much fun as possible.”
During Fresno State's 74-64 home loss to No. 10-ranked Nevada on Jan. 12, Huggins scored a game-high 25 points, hitting five 3-pointers. Even during crunch time late in the second half, as Huggins drove the lane and scored on a layup to cut the deficit to 69-64 with 2:06 remaining, the 6-foot-4 guard could be seen between timeouts smiling and singing along to music playing over the arena's sound system.
“I am going to be out there smiling. I’m going to be out there having fun,” Huggins said. “That’s how I play. When I play angry and upset, I don’t play my best. I am going to go out there and enjoy the game.”
Huggins also knew how much his friends and family from Bakersfield meant to him. And being less than two hours away from home has played a primary role in his happiness this season.
“That’s one of the main reasons I transferred back. Was for the support and the love I needed from the family, from the friends,” Huggins said. “I enjoyed being in New Mexico. Being away, I grew up out there. But it’s really good being back home.”
During Fresno State games at the Save Mart Center, Huggins knows some of the cheers from the stands are from the same fans that cheered him on growing up on the east side of Bakersfield. His star-studded high school career at Mira Monte ended as the 2013-14 BVarsity All-Area Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
“It reminds me back of the high school days,” Huggins said of the reception he receives. “A lot of people are coming back and showing support.”
Huggins also gets positive feedback now from another familiar face. Bakersfield High graduate Justin Hutson is in his first season as the head coach at Fresno State.
Hutson recruited Huggins while he was an assistant coach at San Diego State and coached Braxton’s older brother, Brandon, at BHS when Mark Hutson — Justin’s dad — was Drillers' coach.
“Braxton is awesome. Since I got here he's been doing great in the classroom,” Hutson said. "That whole family can really shoot the basketball and we're really lucky to have him. He's been playing great.”
Adding to Huggins' enjoyment is Fresno State's success on the court — the Bulldogs are 12-4 overall and 3-1 in conference play. The senior hopes his college career ends with the team taking the court in the NCAA Tournament.
“That’s why we work every day. We are trying to get to the Tournament,” Huggins said. “That’s what we play for.”
Trevor Horn can be reached at (661) 395-7374. Follow him on Twitter: @trevhorn.