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UConn men’s basketball position preview: Bigs

For the first time in a long time, the Huskies are stacked with talent in the frontcourt.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

On Nov. 12, 2020, almost nine months to the day after a brutal leg injury arrested his breakout season, Akok Akok was back in practice. Now, he had been back in practice for a few weeks before this, but that day was different. That day, the athletics communications video department also happened to be in the same gym, so nearly 20,000 (and counting) people around the UConn fanbase got to see a noticeably beefed-up Akok back down Josh Carlton 15 feet away from the basket, effortlessly spin around him, and take it to the rack, rising up and over the senior’s hopeless block attempt.

Akok returned looking jacked, while retaining the majority of his pre-injury mobility. Bad news for the rest of the Big East, and a signal to the rest of UConn’s talented front court:

Plenty of UConn men’s basketball teams in the past decade have featured one talented big man. Two super-talented big men? It’s happened a couple of times. But three or more? Nigh-unheard of for a program known for rolling out three- and even at times four-guard lineups on their championship teams. This year, however, UConn has more big man talent than, possibly, at any other point in the last 10 years. One could argue that the singular talents of Andre Drummond or Charles Okwandu outweighs any combination of talents, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Between returnees Isaiah Whaley, Josh Carlton and Akok Akok, newcomers Javonte Brown and Adama Sanogo, and those who are a mix of both (Richie Springs, anybody?), head coach Dan Hurley will have a bonafide buffet of big man talent with which to construct his lineups around.

Akok Akok

Let’s lead off with the player who opened November with a bang. Akok Akok’s mid-February injury last year was a heartbreaker for UConn fans because Akok had such a phenomenal impact on the Huskies’ defense since arriving in Storrs. Counting stats don’t tell the whole story, but his 2.6 blocks per game was easily the best since Amida Brimah in 2016, and pulling down 5.5 rebounds at just 193 lbs. is nothing to sneeze at either, speaking to his good positioning on the block.

But to truly grasp Akok’s impact on the defensive end of the floor, you have to dive deeper. Thanks to the wonderful Hoop-Explorer, we can get a more complete picture using on-off stats. It’s simple, really. When Akok was on the floor, teams shot just 49.1 percent at the rim. When he was off the floor, that number shot up to 52.2 percent. In fact, Akok got a hand on nearly ten percent of all shots taken while he was on the floor.

That’s not statistical noise, either. Onyeka Okongwu, one of the foremost rim protectors in college basketball and a projected 2020 NBA Draft lottery pick, held opponents to 51 percent at the rim last year, while that number rose to 56 percent when he was off the court. Akok might not be quite at Okongwu’s level yet, but the fact that the numbers are comparable should be scary to the rest of the Big East.

It was apparent in the film, too. At the start of games, Akok would either ping hopeful shots into the stands with his go-go gadget arms or otherwise force opposing players into uncomfortable positions. Then after a while, teams would give up and not even try him at the rim.

Offensively, Akok will still have a ways to go after returning from injury. He shot an average 58.9 percent at the rim, but for a player whose outside shot was touted coming in, he didn’t impress, shooting 26.1 percent from three on 46 attempts.

Now nearly fully-recovered from his ruptured Achilles, Akok figures to return as a major frontcourt factor to terrorize opposing offenses in the Huskies’ new conference. He rarely played as the lone center in a small-ball lineup last year, but now that he’s bulked up that could be an option for Hurley with his mobility.

Isaiah Whaley

If you asked me at the start of the 2019-20 season which one of the UConn big men had the potential to become a Charles Okwandu-esque cult figure by year’s end, Whaley would probably be my last pick. In hindsight, I should have known that his vast improvement would happen when it came out that his old nickname was “Pork Chop” preseason, but regardless, boy did that kick off near the end of the regular season. Whaley’s hard-nosed, blue collar play-style did not go unnoticed by UConn fans, fighting for countless offensive rebounds and doing the dirty work around the rim.

But by the end of the season, he expanded beyond that archetype to become a legitimately efficient player on the offensive side of the ball. Whaley led UConn in field goal percentage at the rim by a country mile, shooting 67.4 percent from close range, squarely in “elite big man” territory. His shot-blocking was improving too, deflecting 8.5 percent of all shots taken while he was on the floor.

His cold stats alone aren’t what made him a fan favorite, however. He was a bundle of energy on the floor, fighting tooth and nail for anything that could be remotely considered a loose ball. His play-style is anything but graceful, but that just gave fans another reason to love him. Hurley told reporters this offseason that Whaley has been working out as a power forward, so he’ll likely start games in that role, then slip into a pick-and-roll center role if the Huskies go small, like they used so often last year.

Josh Carlton

Ah, Josh Carlton. With both other incumbent big men breaking out last season and two exciting, young talents arriving over the summer, to say Carlton will get lost in the fold in the frontcourt would be an understatement. Carlton was the scapegoat for UConn’s tough late-season stretch of games last year for a number of reasons. Fans saw him give up backdoor layups, show up late to his rotations, and not offer much at all in the way of rim protection.

The stats back this up, to a degree. The opposition shot 50.4 percent at the rim against the Huskies when he was on the floor, vs. 47.4 percent when he was off. His lack of athleticism also reared its ugly head on the offensive side of the ball, shooting a pedestrian 57.7 percent on close two attempts.

Like it or not, however, Carlton will have a very important role to play in this UConn frontcourt: He rebounds like a madman. He only trailed recently-departing guard Christian Vital in rebounds per game, and grabbed 16.2 percent of all available rebounds when he was on the floor last year, including 14.7 percent of offensive rebounds. That’s more than NBA rebounding god Andre Drummond was able to pull down in his lone year with the Huskies in 2012. Carlton is really good at that one specific thing that coaches just happen to love, and that alone will get him another 20 minutes per game no matter how crowded the frontcourt gets this year, and he’s now a senior, so his leadership will be invaluable for this team.

Richie Springs

Now we venture into the unknown, so let’s start with the basics. Richie Springs is a redshirt sophomore from Brooklyn, New York who stands 6-foot-9 and greatly benefitted from Mike Rehfeldt’s Happy Times Summer Camp in the offseason, up from 200 to 225 lbs. this year. He reclassified to join the 2019 recruiting class, gaining an extra year working with Hurley and learning the system as a redshirt freshman.

There’s a lot we don’t know about Springs, but when Hurley calls someone “as good of an offensive rebounder as I’ve ever seen,” heads start to turn. Springs averaged a double-double in Peach Jam in 2019, where he originally got on Hurley’s radar, after going through a growth spurt in high school. His defense also received praise from the UConn coaching staff, and he also worked hard to improve his outside shooting game. Springs will likely fit into the roster as a stretch four, and if his rebounding is as good as advertised, he’ll have a shot at carving out some minutes.

Javonte Brown

The big man on campus from way up north, freshman Javonte Brown is both the youngest (he finally turned 18 on September 17 of this year) and tallest, standing at 7-feet, player on the roster. From Thornlea Secondary School in Toronto, he’s the first Canadian player on the men’s team since Denham Brown in 2006. UConn win Brown’s signature over schools like Kansas, Georgetown and Providence last summer, when he was a four-star recruit.

Brown plays like a prototypical, back-to-the-basket center, although he is still raw and developing his skills. He has good touch in the post, and is useful in lob, pick-and-roll and transition situations. He still has a ways to go on the defensive side of the ball, but his massive frame leaves plenty of room for growth. It wouldn’t be surprising if Brown redshirted this year, either.

Adama Sanogo

Adama Sanogo says he models his game after Miami Heat star Bam Adebayo, and he has the build to bring that toughness on defense to Storrs, at 6-foot-9 and 240 lbs. Originally from Mali, Sanogo went to high school at the Patrick School in New Jersey, where he averaged a double-double through 14 games with the program.

Sanogo will bring a wild-card factor to UConn’s front court, and would be a fair pick to have breakout season in his first year under Hurley. The head coach raved about his physical abilities this offseason, calling him “a warrior,” and if his high school/sneaker circuit footage is to be believed, that’s understating it. He has a strong, NBA-ready body and plays like a boulder on skates, every movement is fluid and devastatingly precise.

After this offseason, he seems like the only player who’s actually lost weight, no doubt making his posts moves even quicker. He’s likely the best prospect out of the bigs on UConn’s roster right now, and has the makings of a very exciting player, according to Hurley.

It’s been a while since UConn’s frontcourt was the strongest area of the team, and — let’s be honest — that might continue this year as well, with James Bouknight leading the team, but the big men aren’t far behind. The emerging Whaley and Akok, the rock-steady Carlton and the newcomers Springs, Sanogo and Brown have Husky fans excited about the big men for the first time in almost a decade.