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Andre Jackson emerging as heart and soul of No. 5 Huskies

The junior guard is a major reason UConn is 9-0 and considered a legitimate Final Four threat.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

On Monday, the UConn men’s basketball team climbed to No. 5 in the AP poll, its highest ranking in over a decade. In Year 5 under head coach Dan Hurley, the Huskies have returned to a level of national recognition and excellence not seen since the Jim Calhoun days.

While the Huskies have one of the top players in the country in big man Adama Sanogo and a trendy NBA prospect in Jordan Hawkins, the heart and soul of this year’s UConn team is without a doubt junior wing Andre Jackson. Armed with world-class athleticism and maybe an even better basketball IQ, the junior has taken his game to another level to help UConn emerge early on as a legitimate Big East and Final Four contender, setting the tone offensively and defensively as a vocal leader.

“He’s a stunt man out there,” Hurley said after the win against Oklahoma State. “He’s a tremendous impact player.”

After missing the first three games due to recovery from an offseason finger injury, Jackson came off the bench for five straight games, including all of the Huskies’ contests in the Phil Knight Invitational. While it took Jackson a little while to get going offensively — he scored just nine total points in his first four games back — the Amsterdam, New York product still stuffed the stat sheet, racking up 14 boards and 15 assists alongside his usual elite perimeter defense.

While Jackson likely could have slotted right back into the first five in place of a struggling Nahiem Alleyne, his energy on both ends off the bench helped spark numerous runs alongside Joey Calcaterra and Donovan Clingan in Portland.

“Everyone is able to sacrifice. That’s the biggest thing. When you have so many high-level players from different schools coming in, everyone has to sacrifice. If not, the team chemistry won’t be where it’s supposed to be,” Jackson said. “Everyone has bought into Coach Hurley’s system and come together.”

In the PKI final against Iowa State, Jackson once again came off the bench and reemerged as an offensive threat, posting his first double-double of the season with 10 points and 13 boards. He also added five assists to just one turnover and showcased his improving jump shot with a deep 3-pointer in the second half to firmly put the game out of reach.

As UConn returned home to take on Oklahoma State, Jackson returned to the starting five and picked up right where he left off against the Cyclones. After throwing down a lob off a set play to open the game, Jackson played 30 minutes and scored 11 points while adding seven boards, six assists and three steals without a single turnover.

“Yeah, it feels good,” Jackson said of returning to the starting lineup. “I really just want to play as long as I can and go out there and impact the game. That’s the biggest and most important thing.”

While the Huskies don’t have a true point guard this season, East Carolina transfer Tristen Newton filled in admirably early on this season. But now with Jackson fully back in the fold, UConn has an elite, albeit maybe unorthodox, facilitator to get the ball to the players who need it the most.

“We’re always looking for the open man. We’re always trying to get the ball to the right people at the right times,” Jackson said. “We have a lot of different threats.”

Even though Sanogo and Hawkins may have gotten the most hype so far this season, Jackson continues to make a name for himself as an intriguing NBA prospect. With his 6-foot-6 frame and athleticism, he would immediately be able to guard multiple positions at the next level.

Offensively, Jackson’s game is unique, especially with his 10-15 foot floaters he can rely on off either foot around the paint. His court vision and rapid improvement of his jump shot mechanics show that he has the potential to grow even more as a scorer.

Jackson shot 36.1 percent from deep as a sophomore last season, and is currently 3-14 from beyond the arc to start this year. Despite the low shooting numbers, Jackson’s shot has visibly improved once again after work in the offseason. He’s now a career 72 percent free throw shooter and currently has the best KenPom offensive efficiency rating (106.5) of his career. Jackson may not be the next Steph Curry, but he relies on his elite basketball IQ to pick and choose the best shots for him or when to hit open shooters.

On top of the jump-out-of-the-gym athleticism, Jackson’s makeup is another major plus and provides a steady but tenacious presence in the UConn lineup. While more mild-mannered than Hurley, the junior brings the same intensity and confidence onto the court that Hurley exhibits on the sideline, setting the tone for the team on both ends.

“I try to just play to win. That’s the biggest thing is just playing to win. We’re here to play UConn basketball, you need to have your head where your feet are at,” Jackson said. “That’s what I try to abide by.”