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UConn men’s basketball 2021-22 player review: Adama Sanogo

Sanogo transformed into a dominant big man during his sophomore year with the Huskies

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

With a string of players recently opting to transfer out of the UConn men’s basketball program, one of the things Husky fans can look forward to next year is watching Adama Sanogo continue to develop for at least one more season. The sophomore went from a promising rookie to being considered among the best bigs in the conference this past season.

Sanogo came to Storrs courtesy of the Patrick School in Hillside, New Jersey, right in Seton Hall’s backyard. Sanogo shared a top 100 ranking with running mate Andre Jackson but was considerably less hyped coming in. Sanogo was seen as a project, given that he took up basketball and moved to the U.S. from Mali barely five years ago. He was a raw prospect, someone who could develop into a quality big man in a few years after some rigorous coaching. There were a couple of sure things about Sanogo, though. He had the size to compete right away. It’s not easy to find nimble 6’9’ 240-pound big men, and he was precisely that. The biggest hurdle for him coming in was seen as his adjustment to the speed of the collegiate game.

While it was Jackson who was seen as the can’t-miss prospect, he was the one who struggled early and often finding his rhythm and adjusting to the higher level of play. Sanogo proved right from the jump that he was ready to compete, putting up 16 points and nine rebounds through his first two games in just 28 minutes of action. While these contests weren’t against high-level competition (CCSU and Hartford), Sanogo was not simply overpowering smaller defenders. He was flashing some rare feathery touch and post footwork that has not been seen in a UConn uniform in quite some time. Although he had some difficulties when the Huskies started Big East play, he really hit a stride in the middle of the season, which carried him to his best performance of his freshman year, a 16-point, nine-rebound effort against Seton Hall.

His promising body of work during year one (7.3 points, 4.8 rebounds) led to a preseason honorable mention prior to the 2021-22 season. But to the Husky faithful, this was disrespectful. The fan base had seen a preview of how good he could be throughout the year and felt he should’ve gotten more recognition. The Big East media thought differently.

With nightly averages of 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, Sanogo’s breakout sophomore campaign earned him All-Big East first-team honors this past season, the only true big to find himself in this prestigious six-man group that also featured another Husky in RJ Cole. The improvement Sanogo made between his first and second season was nothing short of sensational; comparable even to the great Emeka Okafor, who was a top-five player in UConn history. Sanogo is nowhere near the level of the former All-American and Final Four MOP, especially defensively, but the jump he took between seasons is similar. Okafor’s 441 career block record at UConn will likely not be touched for quite some time.

Sanogo through his first two seasons

2020-21: 7.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 17 minutes per game

2021-22: 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 29 minutes per game

Okafor through his first two seasons

2001-02: 7.9 points, 9.0 rebounds, 4.1 blocks, 30 minutes per game

2002-03: 15.9 points, 11.2 rebounds, 4.7 blocks, 33 minutes per game

Sanogo started off his second season with a statement, putting up back-to-back 20-point outings that led to UConn blowouts. He played 49 total minutes and went 19-of-24 from the field. It was clear that Sanogo was going to be a go-to guy this year based on those first two games. It wasn’t just about the stats, Sanogo was attacking early and often, his confidence level clearly notches above where it was a season ago. Dan Hurley made it clear that Sanogo was going to be the primary option on the offensive end until someone could stop him. In his first real test, the top 25 showdown with Auburn on national television, Sanogo poured in a career-high 30 points against 7-foot-1 Walker Kessler, who won the National and SEC defensive player of the year awards and was NCAA’s leader in blocked shots. Sanogo buried Kessler on the low block countless times, and the North Carolina transfer was no match for Sanogo’s array of quick post moves and strength near the basket.

What’s particularly interesting about Sanogo is that while he does boast a massive frame, his game is not predicated on “bully ball” as one might expect. He’s able to use build to snag offensive boards, but his offensive skill set is centered on his soft touch and footwork under the basket. Because he is so dominant around the basket, Sanogo rarely ventures outside of the paint other than to set screens on the perimeter, so his jump shot is still a bit of mystery. This is more for his professional prospects, but if he can develop a consistent mid-range jumper, Sanogo could be a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate if he isn't already.

The post move of choice for Sanogo is his patented fading jump hook, which he is able to hit over either shoulder and can spin into the shot with ease. During his freshman season, Sanogo scored a large portion of his points off of putbacks generated from offensive rebounds, but he still showed glimpses of how good he could be with some ambidextrous finishes here and there. After watching Sanogo this past season, it was clear he worked on these moves all summer—they were much more polished and better executed.

Sanogo was able to improve his ability to seal a defender from the post, creating an open passing lane for his teammates to feed him the basketball in a scoring position. This is another area where his stocky frame comes in handy, as his way of moving smaller defenders from their spots and commanding the paint was particularly impressive. While Isaiah Whaley was often running off of his slip screens, trying to use his quickness to catch defenders napping, Sanogo was bumping a defender and then setting up shop on the low block to await an entry pass. It’s no secret that UConn went through some tough stretches on offense this past season, and a lot of the time feeding Sanogo the ball and letting him go to work was their best chance to score. The money plays for the Huskies seemed to be either a high screen and roll to get RJ Cole making decisions with a big man sagging on him in the mid-range, or giving Sanogo space to operate in the paint so he could take his man 1 on 1.

Hurley loved to run these set plays to get Sanogo a seal or 1-on-1 opportunity in space. Here he has a perfect seal on his defender and Jackson hits him with a great lead pass for the look. While the end result wasn’t quite there due to a quick recovery on Xavier’s part, it’s a prime example of how Sanogo gets himself in a great position for a fairly simple entry pass that has him in scoring position immediately.

Teams in the Big East started to game plan for Sanogo after they saw his strong performance during the out-of-conference schedule, and threw some double teams his way. This took him some time to figure out, and understandably so. It’s extremely tough to pick this up on the fly, and something every dominant big has had to account for in their career. It’s also an area he can definitely still use some improvement in. In some games, he responded well to this added pressure and was able to effectively pass out of it or even work his way through to score, but other times he tried to force up tough shots and turned it over pretty consistently. The fact that Sanogo’s ability to handle double teams is being critiqued or even discussed at all speaks volumes to how good he was this past season, though. This is one of the hardest things to deal with as a big man, and if you are commanding doubles as a sophomore then you are clearly doing your job extremely well.

Sanogo didn’t just improve his offensive game, but also helped anchor the Huskies’ top 50 defense by being a steady rim protector (1.9 blocks per game) that forced opposing players to think twice about coming into the paint. He was also able to utilize his frame to keep opposing bigs from getting any easy looks, especially with his ability to time a shot, something he likely picked up from practicing with Big East defensive player of the year Isiah Whaley for two seasons. While Sanogo was a consistent and effective rim projector (six blocks on three separate occasions), he could also get taken advantage of when pulled out of his comfort zone. He’s not a great perimeter defender, even for a center, and is prone to being driven on if he finds himself 15-to-20 feed from the basket. This is less of a concern with the Big East lacking proper small-ball lineups and versatile bigs to really exploit this shortcoming. While Sanogo has nimble feet around the basket, perimeter defense is an entirely new stratosphere. Sanogo could also use some improvement in his ball screen defense as well. He can be a bit slow to react and recover at times when the action comes his way, but this is just another part of his game that will continue to improve and develop as he gets a better feel for the game.

Overall, Sanogo’s second season as a Husky was a success, and you can bet he will have his name all over preseason all-conference lists and maybe even some All-American lineups. Andre Jackson also markedly improved in his season as well, and it is clear the two have a connection.

The future is bright for Sanogo and Jackson. With another off-season together to truly gel, this duo is going to be a challenge on both ends of the floor for any opponent. If Sanogo can develop a mid-range jumper while also adding his post arsenal and shore up some defensive technique, this time next year UConn should be looking at its first All-American since Shabazz Napier 10 years ago.