UConn’s roster construction makes it hard for any newcomers to stand out this season. There are three true freshman, two redshirts who hardly played last season due to injuries, and four incoming transfers. Following Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey’s graduation and the transfer of Steve Enoch and Juwan Durham, the front court duties were falling to a group of players new to the roster.
That doesn’t mean that everyone’s production has been equal, though. Some have struggled to adjust to the pace of high-level college basketball. Some have seen their skills transfer poorly, and others haven’t developed their abilities to their potential yet. And while the team’s struggles this season can be partly attributed to having so much inexperience making up such a large part of their rotation, a few players have already proven themselves to be consistent contributors.
Isaiah Whaley, for example, has already shown his proficiency in help defense. Mamadou Diarra is a high-motor player on both ends of the court who has a knack for quality play around the rim. But there’s one freshman whose level of play has extended beyond his classmates’.
Josh Carlton gets the sixth most minutes on the team, and his playing time has increased since taking over the starting center role from Eric Cobb and David Onuorah. The challenge has kept him busy; his foul rate has skyrocketed since becoming Kevin Ollie’s go-to defensive anchor. But that’s one of Carlton’s few drawbacks as a player, and his positive attributes more than make up for his minimal deficiencies.
Carlton has already become the team’s best interior defender. He ranks second on the team in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (roughly, an estimate of how many points a player adds to the to the scoring margin while on defense) and second on the team in Defensive Rating (a measure of how many points are allowed on defense while the player is on the floor).
Both stats are led by a different player, the former by Whaley, the latter by Christian Vital. Vital’s strong perimeter defense takes a lot of pressure off the big men; last season defensive issues were compounded by the guards rarely being able to stop ball penetration. Whaley, as mentioned earlier, is great in help defense, and blocks many shots, but doesn’t have the overall defensive impact that Carlton does, largely due to versatility.
Carlton is, for lack of a better word, a beefy player. He’s listed at 6’9” and 242 pounds, and he knows how to use both effectively, showing off his strength when pushing around Tacko Fall in the win over Central Florida. He’s quick and has good footwork—Whaley is faster, but Carlton is also capable of picking up stretch players around the perimeter—meaning he’s not just a body on the inside. His versatility allows UConn to make difficult rotations without causing problems. This is especially true when he and Whaley share the frontcourt, as their skillsets complement each other smoothly. Suffice to say, Carlton’s play backs up the results of the advanced stats.
He’s capable in more traditional statistical areas as well; he’s displayed a competence around the offensive glass that can help extend possessions, and blocks just as many shots as Whaley on a per-minute basis. Even his offensive game is improving; while it would be beneficial if he added a secondary skill (either passing out of the post, a skill he showed in high school, or better ball control), he’s shown scoring ability with the ball in his hand. He’s unlikely to develop into a high-volume offensive superstar, but his shooting efficiency is already among the best on the team.
What’s even more promising is that Carlton’s production has improved since getting into conference play, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He didn’t play often in some high-profile non-conference games (only one minute against Syracuse, for example), getting most of his early minutes against weak opponents. He was rewarded for good play off the bench with 14 minutes in a close loss to Wichita State, which turned into 16 against Central Florida, which turned into 20 against Tulane. The Green Wave were an ideal matchup for Carlton, and he made the most of it, scoring a season-high 10 points and helping to shut down an offense comprised of good shooters.
Now that Ollie has confidence in Carlton, we may see the freshman more and more during the rest of the season. His presence has been a huge boon to the Huskies defense all year, and more time on the floor can only benefit both parties.
In every UConn championship year, they’ve had a quality defensive player on the inside who was capable of clogging the opponent’s attack. While it may take some time for the program get back to those storied heights, finding their next great defensive center is a big step in the right direction.