UConn is no stranger to landing graduate transfers that can make a major impact on a team. R.J. Evans from Holy Cross provided a stabilizing presence during the postseason ban year and the transition from Jim Calhoun to Kevin Ollie, while Lasan Kromah from George Washington was an important piece in the Huskies’ 2014 title run. Players like Sterling Gibbs and Shonn Miller turned out to be big-time additions too. Could Tarin Smith and Kassoum Yakwe be next in line?
While it’s very early and the Huskies have played nobody but terrible teams, it seems Dan Hurley’s first crop of grad transfers could be critical in helping this program get back to their winning ways.
Smith came to the Huskies after two years at Duquesne, winning the Atlantic 10 Sixth Man of the Year Award last season after averaging 12.4 points and 3.2 assists. Smith transferred to Duquesne from Nebraska and played high school ball for Bobby Hurley St. Anthony’s. This connection combined with two years of crossing paths with Dan Hurley in the A-10 at URI made Smith a logical fit.
While it’s still too early in the year to say that the move has been perfect for both sides, things look good so far, with Smith averaging 17 points per game and shooting 63.6 percent from the field while providing a solid defensive presence off the bench through the Huskies’ first two games.
Yakwe didn’t play much against Morehead State due to a lingering foot injury, but brought some serious energy on the boards on both offense and defense. His size and wingspan make it obvious why he was one of the Big East’s best shotblockers as an underclassman, and with his work rate should make him a quality bench piece, even he is hampered by foul trouble like he was against UMKC.
As good as Smith and Yakwe may be, a good chunk of their value will be who they are replacing. The two more or less replace Antwoine Anderson and David Onuorah, who suited up as grad transfers for Ollie last year. There were some expectations that Anderson and Onuorah would be able to be consistent contributors and provide a veteran presence, but to put it nicely, it didn’t work out.
Maybe it was the coaching staff or the lack of an offensive system or the injury to Alterique Gilbert, but Anderson and Onuorah didn’t do much to help the Huskies win basketball games. Anderson shot 27.1 percent from the 3-point line, led all UConn guards in turnover percentage (20.6 percent) and averaged 7.4 points in 31.4 minutes per game. While Onuorah did help out on the boards, he had no impact offensively, posting a 75.2 offensive rating and averaging a point per game while being called for seemingly endless amount of moving screens.
Regardless of how good Smith and Yakwe may end up being for UConn this season, a lot of their value will tie in to how they compare to their predecessors of Anderson and Onuorah. Right now, Smith and Yakwe look even better than they might actually be, simply because of the roles they are replacing, and that helps this UConn team in so many ways.
Smith’s contributions as a scorer and defender takes loads of pressure off UConn’s guards and especially Christian Vital, who was forced to put up a lot of bad shots last season simply because there was no one else available to score. Smith also serves as valuable insurance should another guard get into foul trouble or injured. Instead of dealing with the drop off from Jalen Adams and Vital to Anderson like last year when Gilbert was injured, Smith’s talent is much more in line with the three aforementioned guards, adding depth that the Huskies haven’t had in years.
Perhaps most importantly, Smith has demonstrated a balanced offensive game, getting to the rack and hitting midrange jumpers with ease. While it seems clear he isn’t predominantly a 3-point threat, he made half of his attempts so far (3-6) and looks comfortable running the point, a critical skill for any bench guard in a UConn offense, allowing Adams and/or Vital to play off the ball more and give Gilbert more rest.
Yakwe isn’t the second coming of Emeka Okafor or Hasheem Thabeet, but he should be able to impact at least a few games with his shot-blocking ability. The Huskies haven’t had a legit shot blocker since Amida Brimah left, but Yakwe is probably the closest thing, averaging blocking 146 shots in three years at St. Johns.
When Yakwe is in the game, perimeter defenders will be able to play tighter defense, worrying less about getting beat with Yakwe being able to alter shots in the paint. On top of this, Yakwe is another quality big body that Hurley can pair with Josh Carlton or Eric Cobb to help haul in rebounds against bigger teams. Staying out of foul trouble seems like it could be a problem, though as Yakwe fouled out against UMKC in just 14 minutes.
Yakwe and Smith might not be the best graduate transfers to ever come through UConn, but their timing could not be better. Both players fill immediate needs for a Huskies squad vying to once again return to the NCAA tournament and offer immense upgrades over their predecessors. Their past experiences add leadership and depth on and off the court and still give Hurley the roster space and flexibility he needs to bring in top talent in 2019 and beyond to rebuild UConn into a national power.