After a couple of “transition” years, UConn women’s basketball is primed to begin a new era next season as the Huskies’ 2020 class comes to Storrs. Though No. 1 prospect Paige Bueckers headlines the group, the other four players are still well-regarded prospects with high ceilings.
However, as talented as the freshmen are, they won’t be the ones driving the bus for UConn next year. Even in the wake of Megan Walker’s early departure to the WNBA, the Huskies return a strong core to pair with the highly-touted newcomers.
While the loss of Walker might knock UConn off the perch as the early national championship favorites, the Huskies should be in the mix as one of the top teams in the nation, like they are every year.
Note: Players are listed by their 2020-21 years.
Christyn Williams - Junior
After an underwhelming sophomore campaign, Williams will be expected to shoulder the bulk of the scoring load next season in the wake of Walker’s departure. While Williams is arguably the most talented returner, talent has never been her problem. Instead, Williams has admitted on more than one occasion that she sometimes struggles with the mental side of the game and gets inside her own head too often.
This past season, she flashed her abilities off the ball — most notably on the glass, where she upped her average from 3.2 boards per game as a freshman to 4.9 per game as a sophomore. Williams was certainly on an upward trajectory when the season was cut short, and UConn needs her to make a similar leap that Walker made as a junior to maintain its place as a top-five team.
One thing that may benefit Williams the most is time off. She spent most of last summer playing 3x3 basketball with Team USA and didn’t get a whole lot of time away from the game. Sometimes, less is more and if Williams can get away from the court for a little while and hit the reset button, it could help her clear her mind and come back with renewed energy.
Olivia Nelson-Ododa - Junior
While Geno Auriemma declared Nelson-Ododa the team’s most important player in the lead up to this past season, that will be doubly true entering 2020-21. The Huskies will lose every big behind Nelson-Ododa (Kyla Irwin, Evelyn Adebayo and Batouly Camara) to graduation and as things stand now, freshman Piath Gabriel will be the only other legitimate post player on the roster.
However, unlike last year, Nelson-Ododa might actually be ready to handle the pressure as a junior. She’ll have a full year as a starter under her belt and the experience of all the highs and lows that came with that. Most importantly, the Oregon loss sparked something inside Nelson-Ododa and she soon after transformed herself from “one of the most horrendous practice players I’ve ever had in the history of our program,” as Auriemma said bluntly, to one of the best on the team down the stretch. A full summer of practicing at that level should help Nelson-Ododa emerge as one of the top centers in the nation.
Evina Westbrook - Redshirt junior
Of all the returners, no one is a bigger question mark than Westbrook. Though she’s been in Storrs for nearly a year now, the Tennessee transfer has spent most of that time recovering from a pair of left knee surgeries. The hope is that the second operation on New Years’ Eve fixed any lingering issues and Westbrook is expected to be ready for summer workouts in June — assuming they even happen with the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the court, Westbrook is the most logical replacement for Crystal Dangerfield at point guard. As a sophomore at Tennessee, she ran the offense and led the team with 14.9 points and 5.3 assists per game. While freshmen Paige Bueckers and Nika Muhl will likely push for playing time, handing the reigns of the offense to a veteran like Westbrook with plenty of collegiate experience makes the most sense, especially early in the season.
Aubrey Griffin - Sophomore
Before the season, Auriemma said neither he nor Griffin knew how good the Ossining, New York star could be. Thirty-two games into her collegiate career, that sentiment still holds true. While she showed flashes of greatness with performances such as the 16-point, 15-rebound night in the AAC Tournament, those games barely scratched the surface of her potential.
Most of Griffin’s points either came off offensive rebounds or from the free throw line — which isn’t a knock on her. Instead, it just shows how dangerous of a player she already is without much of a refined offensive game. If Griffin can smooth out the edges and have more moments where she’s aggressive and unstoppable going to the rim instead of the deer-in-headlights moments, the sky is the limit for the rising sophomore.
Anna Makurat - Sophomore
It took a little while for Makurat to get going but once she did, she showed herself to be a dangerous offensive threat. Of all the returners, Makurat features the most complete offensive game with the ability to create her own shot, make threes, pass the ball and rebound.
Walker’s departure opens the door for Makurat to become the focal point of UConn’s offense next season. Considering she’s a year older than most other freshmen, already has professional experience in Poland and proved her abilities at the collegiate level, Makurat is primed to become one of the nation’s top offensive players next year.
Paige Bueckers - Freshman
It’s not an exaggeration to say Bueckers might be the most hyped women’s basketball prospect ever. She’s the only girls’ high school player to be on the cover of SLAM magazine, won pretty much every national player of the year award possible and is already a social media sensation. It doesn’t help that Auriemma threw gas on that fire back in December, either.
“I am going to be saying, ‘You know what, we wouldn’t have won the national championship without her,’” Auriemma predicted on what he’d say after Bueckers’ freshman year. “That is what I am going to say. By herself she can’t win anything. But with the people I think we are going to surround her with, I think we can do great things.”
Bueckers isn’t going to be the “savior” of the program (mostly because it doesn’t need saving) but expectations should be high, just not unreasonable. The bar shouldn’t be to go undefeated four years in a row and win every national championship. She probably won’t be the best player in the country right off the bat and will endure her share of freshman struggles. But Bueckers is undeniably a special talent and if she can find her footing sooner rather than later, it should be a fun season.
Nika Muhl - Freshman
Auriemma often likes to distinguish between kids who play basketball and basketball players. According to the coach, Muhl is a basketball player. The second European to come to Storrs in as many years, Muhl is as pass-first a point guard as they come.
“She’s the one that told me on the home visit, ‘An assist is way better than a basket.’ I go, ‘Yeah, how so?’ She said ‘Well when you score, you make one person happy. When you get an assist, two people are happy: The person that passed it and the person that scored.’ I’ve never heard a kid describe it that way,” Auriemma relayed on The Geno Auriemma Show.
With Westbrook, Williams, Makurat and Bueckers likely ahead of her on the depth chart, there aren’t a whole lot of minutes to go around in the backcourt. Muhl will likely have to force her way onto the court as a freshman.
Aaliyah Edwards - Freshman
A 6-foot-2 wing from Canada, Edwards is “relentless” according to Auriemma. And after he watched her play for the first time, the coach was just as relentless recruiting her.
“I’ve never seen a kid just attack the game the way this kid attacks the game,” he said on The Geno Auriemma Show. “And the whole time I just couldn’t take my eyes off her. And I remember saying to CD and those guys, I said ‘CD, we gotta get this kid.’”
ESPN described her as an “ultra-athletic perimeter prospect with off-the-charts potential” while her former coach compared her to Kawhi Leonard. It’s easy to see her fill a similar role to Griffin this past season as a rebounder and defensive presence.
Mir McLean - Freshman
Another ultra-athletic wing, McLean’s scouting report on ESPN read almost identical to former UConn star Gabby Williams’.
Left: Gabby Williams' recruiting profile scouting report.— Daniel Connolly (@DanielVConnolly) July 1, 2019
Right: Mir McLean's scouting report.
They're seriously almost identical. pic.twitter.com/tsoIK5ma5Z
Like Edwards, McLean will have to earn minutes on the glass and on defense. But if the coaching staff can get Griffin, Edwards and McLean to a level where they can all contribute, the combination of their athleticism on the floor together will terrorize opponents and help mitigate UConn’s lack of size.
Piath Gabriel - Freshman
The biggest mystery of the freshman class, Gabriel is a physical specimen with size (6-foot-5, athleticism and a high motor but is still raw skill-wise. While she certainly projects to be a project, if the coaching staff can get her to hone in and do one thing well, such as rebounding or defense, there’s a path for her to earn minutes behind Nelson-Ododa.