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UConn WBB Weekly: Will the Huskies’ depth hinder player development?

After previously struggling to build depth, UConn may now have too much talent for its own good.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

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Will UConn’s depth hinder player development?

On paper, UConn women’s basketball has an embarrassment of riches. The Huskies have 14 players on their roster — their largest since 2008-09 — and 10 of those players will likely vie for 8-9 spots in the rotation.

These aren’t unknown quantities, either. Seven returners saw at least 10 minutes per game last season and UConn also added Dorka Juhász — a two-time All-Big Ten First Team selection — and a freshman class that includes the No. 1, 5, and 15 prospects in the nation.

While that depth will be an important factor this season, it could also have an unintended consequence by limiting the development of some young players.

During Big East Media Day on Tuesday, Auriemma spoke highly of two young bigs who have mostly been afterthoughts to this point: Sophomore Piath Gabriel and freshman Amari DeBerry.

Gabriel finished with 15 points, 13 fouls, and 12 rebounds in 55 minutes last season and sat out the summer session after undergoing surgery to fix a non-basketball issue in the spring. Nobody mentioned Gabriel either in the summer or during the preseason until Tuesday, when Auriemma pointed her out as a player who recently impressed him in practice.

“I think the player of the week this past week was Piath,” Auriemma said. “Once Piath gets over the things from her surgery, she’s going to help us. I mean, she don’t know it, but I know it.”

Despite being an unranked prospect in the class of 2020, UConn’s staff saw tantalizing potential in Gabriel because of her 6-foot-5 frame and impressive motor. Though they knew going in that she’d a long-term development project, she still didn’t show much as a freshman.

Now, Gabriel is beginning to look like the player the Huskies recruited.

“She’s 6-[5], she runs, she’s got great feet and she wants to be good,” he said. “She’s starting to get it, starting to understand it. So, she’s nowhere near 100 percent but as she gets better every week and every month from that surgery, she’s gonna help us a lot.”

“That’s why we recruited her,” Auriemma added. “None of it was there last year. No. I saw it in high school. Last year, I think she was just shell-shocked the whole year, but now I see it. I really like her.”

While Auriemma is still unsure whether Gabriel will develop fast enough to contribute this season, he’s giddy about the player she could eventually become. For her to reach the next level, Gabriel needs to take advantage of her intangibles.

“She’s got a world of potential upside,” Auriemma said. “She’s long — she’s way longer than anybody we have — and her feet, she’s got great feet. She’s quick. She uses her length. She just hasn’t really blossomed into wanting to use it and knowing how to use it.”

As he discussed Gabriel, Auriemma also went out of his way to mention DeBerry. So far, the No. 15 prospect in the class of 2021 seems to be struggling with the transition to college. In the summer, Auriemma said for every one step forward, she takes one step back while Christyn Williams noted that DeBerry has “work to do.”

Despite the early adversity, Auriemma can still see DeBerry’s potential.

“Amari might be the best-skilled big kid we’ve had in a long time,” he said. “She’s 6-5 and long and skilled. But I think climate change moves faster than she does sometimes. So once we get Amari going — which the last couple of days, I’ve seen the change — that kid is skilled as hell.”

DeBerry might even be better than Auriemma anticipated.

“More skilled than I thought — and I thought she was skilled — but more skilled than I thought,” he said. “Around the basket, shooting it, just really knows how to play and really skilled. I’ve been so impressed. But like I said, gotta get her up to college speed.”

Even if DeBerry or Gabriel make enough progress over the next through weeks or during the season to justify a spot in the rotation, it could still be difficult to find them minutes. UConn is loaded with post players in Aaliyah Edwards, Dorka Juhász, and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, not to mention Aubrey Griffin and Mir McLean.

That could be viewed as a positive: DeBerry and Gabriel don’t have any pressure to contribute right now and UConn doesn’t have to rely on players that might not be ready. The Huskies’ main goal, as always, is to win a national championship and that depth will play a crucial role in their quest for banner No. 12.

But is it beneficial to the development of DeBerry and Gabriel — or any other members of the roster that might be buried on the depth chart? Auriemma has his doubts.

“I don’t know. I wish there was more of a sense of urgency,” he said. “When Stef (Dolson) came, she wasn’t ready to play but she was in the starting lineup day one and played against Brittney Griner [in] game two and fouled out in 30 minutes and didn’t score. So there’s something to be learned by being thrown into the fire.”

UConn’s current roster class is a prime example of that philosophy. Paige Bueckers needed to be the best player in the country right away and answered the bell. Aaliyah Edwards, Nika Mühl, and Aubrey Griffin all played big minutes during their freshmen seasons as well and established themselves as indispensable. Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa both played right away as well, with Williams starting every game her first year.

That doesn’t mean a player has to contribute as a freshman to have a successful career, though. There’s plenty of value in taking a de-facto redshirt season to develop behind the scenes before stepping into a bigger role as a junior or senior. Auriemma just worries about complacency with that approach.

“There’s something to be learned by watching and waiting, but if you’re not careful, you know what you learn? You learn how to watch and wait. I’m not a watch and wait kind of guy,” he said. “We don’t wait to give you your scholarship check every month. So why do we have to wait for you to get good? That’s always been my feeling with the freshmen. You want to get good, fast? Do it. You want to wait? Wait. But the longer you wait, before you know it, the season’s over.”

In previous years, UConn desperately could’ve used DeBerry or Gabriel’s size in the post and, if history is any indication, they probably would’ve improved as the season progressed from the extended minutes.

This year, even if one player (or both) earns the trust of the coaching staff, how much time is realistically available outside of the fourth quarter in blowouts with Edwards, Juhász, and Nelson-Ododa all ahead of them?

Barring injury, not much.

That means it’ll be imperative for both players (and the coaches) to continue to push themselves in practice so they don’t get comfortable just watching and waiting. UConn certainly won’t be bemoaning all its depth this season — especially if it ends with a national championship — but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a downside to having such a collection of talent.


Best of social media

“Roses are red, violets are blue, my program got 11 national championships, what y’all got, two?” — Evina Westbrook roasted UConn men’s basketball during First Night:

Amari DeBerry dunked during First Night:

Stef Dolson brought home a lot of hardware in the past few months:

UConn women’s basketball (No. 2) and men’s basketball (No. 24) are both in the AP Preseason Poll:

Quotables

“She’s been in America now a year and a half total, probably. She still hasn’t fouled anybody, according to her. You show it to her on film, she says it was doctored.” — Geno Auriemma on Nika Mühl.