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2018-19 Men’s Basketball Season Review: Guards

UConn went as far as its guards did this season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It’s no surprise that a program like UConn men’s basketball, historically synonymous with great backcourt play, is still getting the bulk of its production out of its guards. The 2018-19 season was no different for the Huskies, whose three leading scorers were guards. With the offseason now in full swing, here’s a look back at how each of the Huskies’ guards performed this season, and what they might have to look forward to.

Jalen Adams

Jalen Adams never had the coronation among UConn’s elite players that many expected him to after seeing his impressive recruiting portfolio and pre-sophomore improvement. But while he me may not have ended up as a Huskies legend like point guard predecessors Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier, Adams strung together another very good season as the team’s leader despite losing seven games to injury.

Adams was Dan Hurley’s go-to guy for the bulk of the season, as the first-year coach entrusted his senior point guard with workmanlike duties facilitating the offense and acting as the primary scoring option. Somehow, this was a reduced role compared to his junior year, when several factors combined to give him the ball on essentially every possession.

Adams’ increased selectiveness gave him better scoring opportunities, and the result was a more efficient offensive game. His true shooting percentage rose to a career-high level, a 57.7 percent mark compared to his previous best of 51.1 percent, as his percentages in all three scoring values improved in his senior year. On the other hand, his ball movement got worse, turning the ball over far more often than previous seasons and creating assists less regularly. This created a conundrum for Hurley—his top scoring option played best with the ball in his hands, but putting the ball in his hands resulted in worse opportunities for everyone else.

The Huskies were at their best when Adams was at his best, but that’s a double-edged sword of a statement; the Huskies might not have been able to withstand a below-average game from their star player, but their star player was rarely able to find ways to help the team win when he had an off night.

Adams graduated after four years in Storrs as the type of player every program would welcome. His professional career will begin in the fall, and while he’s unlikely to play in the NBA as a first-year professional, Adams should land in a quality European league this year.

Alterique Gilbert

The injury-beset Alterique Gilbert missed a portion of the season again, but showed the most improvement of any UConn player before falling victim to yet another setback. Playing at less than 100% during the back half of the season contributed to season-long numbers that may look lackluster at first before considering his tremendous growth over unhealthy offseasons and his impressive form before this year’s injury.

In the 19 games before Gilbert’s injury, he shot 40.4 percent from beyond the arc, played excellent perimeter defense, and was perhaps the only distributor who didn’t run into turnover problems. When healthy, he served as the offense’s co-leader, with Adams, and combined with Christian Vital to create a strong one-two punch to opposing ballhandlers. In his redshirt sophomore season, Gilbert had begun to look like the five-star recruit the Huskies were promised.

Despite trying to fit back into his old role, Gilbert wasn’t the same player after the injury, and it was clear he wasn’t playing at full health. A long stretch of rest between seasons should treat him well, as he’ll be able to work on consistency and the few gaps in his game during the summer. Injuries may continue to be a concern into the future, but a healthy Gilbert will be able to become the team’s on-court leader with ease in the first game of the 2019-20 season.

Christian Vital

One of only four players who appeared in every game, Christian Vital proved himself to be a valuable contributor to a good team in 2018-19. The rugged junior played with a clearer head this season, allowing himself to fit more of a defined role as it became clear the shooting guard had a lot to offer.

Vital, a previously streaky shooter, learned how to seek better shots this season, and the result was a massive increase in his three-point percentage, improving from 31.8 percent as a sophomore to 40.9 percent as a junior. Less reckless than in previous seasons, Vital got smarter with the ball in his hands, driving to the rim with aggressive caution that rewarded him with more layups and more free throws. While his game still needs work in the area, Vital became a more willing passer too, trying to find teammates several times throughout games.

While still in an off-ball role offensively, which seems to be the best fit for his skillset, Vital is a cog in the defensive machine, playing physically without racking up fouls and clearing away long rebounds like he’s Jason Kidd.

Vital may get more offensive opportunities next season, but his role is unlikely to change, having found an important niche as an off-ball scorer. If he continues to work on his passing and defensive anticipation, he’ll become a major problem for opponents.

Tarin Smith

Upon stepping onto campus, graduate transfer Tarin Smith immediately found a role as the fourth guard in Dan Hurley’s backcourt rotation. Despite a major increase in competition level (Smith came off the bench for Atlantic 10 squad Duquesne), Smith fit his role capably and provided a steady presence for the Huskies.

Smith played important minutes but never became a key player, as his scoring was supplementary rather than a focal point of the bench unit. He was a solid passer, a fine defender, and a capable interior scorer. While gaps in his game became immediately apparent (outside shooting and defending certain types of player, to name two), they never defined his play. Since his skills were never great, though, he was only able to have a minor impact. Thankfully for the Huskies, his basketball intelligence and experience ensured he never had a negative effect on the team.

Brendan Adams

The second newcomer to the Huskies backcourt was Brendan Adams, a freshman originally recruited to Rhode Island before following Hurley to Connecticut. Adams struggled to adjust to the collegiate level, and had a minimal impact, but a closer look at his play last season suggests several reasons to be optimistic.

Adams’ shot didn’t fall during his freshman year, which became a disappointment for a two-guard previously known for his shooting, but his jumper slowly improved as the season went on. Most importantly were the types of misses Adams made—rather than missing side to side, which would suggest bad aim, Adams missed front-to-back, which suggests an issue with touch that can be worked out with practice and experience.

Adams wasn’t asked to pass much, but showed aptitude moving the ball when he got the opportunity to do so, which suggests his distribution may become an asset in the future. Most importantly, though, is how comfortable he looked, getting into the flow of the game with ease both at an individual and team level. Adams was never out of position on either end of the court, clearly understood the concepts Hurley was teaching his team, and rarely made mental mistakes.

The addition of Jalen Gaffney and James Bouknight means Adams’ role may be in flux next season, though it’ll likely be energy minutes off the bench again. However, fans may be assuming that Adams will be the last member of the rotation by default, and that won’t be the case. Adams showed that he had all the little things down; now it’s a matter of getting one or two big things right until he’s a big contributor.