There weren’t many wins this past season, but when the UConn Huskies played at their best, there were always two players at the center of the success. One was Jalen Adams, the point guard who had been expected to lead the team all season. The other one didn’t even start until December—Christian Vital.
Vital followed up a promising freshman campaign with a sophomore season that showed progress, but also left us wanting for better consistency. The shooting guard took on a much bigger role on both ends of the floor, and while certain aspects of his game showed real development, others didn’t quite progress as planned.
More importantly, though, he exceeded expectations in a variety of ways. Vital was UConn’s best perimeter defender this season, and one of the best in the American Athletic Conference. His strength allowed him to defend bigger guards, and he was equally effective against ballhandlers and off-ball players.
He didn’t excel as a specialist, either; Vital became effective at stopping drives, creating turnovers, and forcing ballhandlers into difficult shot attempts. With more experience and even better footwork, he could become a nationally recognized defender.
Vital’s physical profile benefited him on offense as well. His quickness that allowed him to become a skilled defender became a big component of his game when the ball was in his hands. Most notably, Vital became a high-volume slasher, as pretty much all of his attempts from inside the arc came near the rim. This resulted in what was by far the highest free throw rate on the team, getting fouled on nearly a quarter of his shot attempts, and converting his foul shots with the highest percentage on the team too.
While nobody thought Vital was a player who lacked basketball IQ in his freshman season, it was clear that he’s seen a lot of development there too. His defensive positioning and focus was never in question, his improved shot selection (given his role) made him a much more efficient shooter, and his ability to avoid mistakes led him to the lowest turnover rate on the UConn roster.
But while Vital’s smarter shot selection resulted in an uptick in efficiency, his actual shooting ability might not have improved much at all. His three-point percentage fell from .366 to .318 overall, and from .390 to .324 in conference play. Finding a more consistent outside shot should be Vital’s priority over the offseason.
Furthermore, while Vital is relatively turnover-averse, he had more giveaways than assists this season, which he’ll need to work on in order to help his team even more. One way or another, the ball will be in his hands next season, and while he doesn’t need to become a great passer, he needs to improve his accuracy and overall court vision, which will open up scoring chances for both him and his teammates.
Dan Hurley’s new offensive system will represent a big change for Vital, and the most difficult adjustment may be the vastly more regimented structure of the offense. Vital won’t have the opportunity to just do whatever he wants with the ball next season, but there will be a considerable amount of set plays that are designed for him to get an open look. As a wing in Hurley’s offense, a lot of these will task Vital with making a read on his defender—can the shot get up before the defender can contest it, or should he attack the closeout and drive inside? Vital’s improved instincts will help him a lot in this regard, as he’s gained the experience necessary to make the right decision the majority of the time.
Christian Vital took some big steps forward in 2017-18, proving that he can be a major asset to the UConn Huskies in the future. If the shooting guard works out some of the kinks in his game before his junior season begins, he could take an even bigger leap. Regardless of how you project his future for the upcoming season, there was a lot to like about the improvement Vital showed in his sophomore year.