It’s been a couple weeks since the Huskies disappointing performance against New Mexico State in the NCAA tournament, leading to their second straight first round exit. There’s been ample time to digest this frustrating defeat, and start doing some reflecting on the 2021-22 season.
While it didn’t finish the way most expected, fourth year head coach Dan Hurley has the team improving year over year, finishing with the best record since the 2015-16 season. The Huskies also looked better than they have since they won it all in 2014, and a big reason for that was the improvement in play from guard/forward Andre Jackson.
A heralded four-star recruit out of nearby Amesterdam, New York, Jackson was the highest rated recruit to come to Storrs since Alterique Gilbert back in 2016. The dynamic athlete struggled in his first season in Storrs, averaging a mere 2.7 points and shooting 41% from the floor and 2-17 from three. He played in only 16 games due to a wrist injury, and struggled mightily to find a consistent role within the offense, so he was used mostly as a high-energy defensive disruptor and rebounding spark plug.
Jackson didn’t come out of high school with the reputation of lighting up the scoring column every night. He was a raw prospect, and it was obvious that it would take some time for his immaculate athletic talents to turn into legitimate production on a basketball court in the Big East. While he was still able to use his athleticism to contribute in big ways, it wasn't consistent.
His second season was chalk full of improvement across the board. Jackson started 32 of 33 games for UConn, averaging 6.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists. Defensively, he was tasked with guarding the opposing team’s leading scorer countless times and was able to hold them in check more often than not, establishing himself as an elite perimeter defender. This was the area of Jackson's game that needed a lot of refinement, but with a little more discipline and confidence, a Big East defensive Player of the Year wasn’t totally out of the question.
Jackson didn’t quite reach those levels this past season, but was no doubt the defensive MVP for this UConn team. He guarded positions 1-4 throughout the year, using his quickness to stay with smaller guards and his size and reach to disrupt opposing forwards. According to EvanMiya, his Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating (DBPR) was significantly higher than anyone else on UConn’s roster. Jackson came in as a 26.4, which ranks top-25 in the country. To put this into perspective, Adama Sanogo was No. 2 on the team with a 16.4 rating, and Tyrese Martin was third with 11.9.
Jackson’s defensive rebounding was arguably the best on the team as well. He had six games this season with double digit rebounds, highlighted by a season high 16 against St. John’s. He was constantly attacking the glass and out-jumping and out-hustling his counterparts who didn’t have the athleticism to compete.
On the offensive end, there were virtually infinite things to improve on after a tough first season, and Jackson definitely took a major leap in the right direction. In UConn’s three guard lineup, Jackson was heavily relied upon to handle the rock and initiate sets, especially on the break. With the ineffectiveness of Jalen Gaffney hampering lineups, Jackson was thrust into a secondary initiator role that sometimes became primary when RJ Cole was taking a breather. He remained adept at pushing the pace and setting up his teammates for easy scoring opportunties.
Hurley would run the occasional lob for Jackson when he wanted to see some fireworks, but generally did not run sets where Jackson was the primary option, instead opting to put him in positions where he could take advantage of his natural feel for the game on the break in open space.
Jackson is not a great shooter, sporting an improved but still awkward release, but developed into a serviceable 3-point shooter after working on his shot this past offseason. He hit 22 threes at a 36% clip (second on the team with over 20 makes), which was a massive improvement from a season ago in which he shot 11.8%, albeit only on 17 attempts.
While Jackson was great as a facilitator in the open floor, he also constantly pushed the one-man break, a lot of the time off of his own defensive rebound. It was clear that Hurley gave him the green light to go attack these opportunties as much as possible, wanting him to build confidence with the ball in his hands and also getting a better feel for the speed of the game. Even though this did get him in trouble a handful of times and led to some silly turnovers, it also helped UConn put a lot of points on the board that wouldn’t have been there. Just look at how he facilitated these two breaks against Villanova.
Want to highlight Andre Jackson's passing in transition— UConn Film Room (@UConnFilmRoom) February 26, 2022
Elite stuff pic.twitter.com/V0fz4Aybde
Jackson seemed to understand the spacing of the floor much better as well. He would rarely be out of position by either clogging the lane or crowding one side of the court. He was great at opening up more space for the ball-dominant guards to operate and also freeing up the middle for Sanogo to go to work. UConn ran this high-low action countless times, and Jackson was frequently the one coming off of the down-screen to feed Sanogo in the post. If he wasn’t coming off the screen, he was the primary ball-handler feeding that person.
Danny Hurley doesn't run many sets, but this High-Low Action is by far his favorite— UConn Film Room (@UConnFilmRoom) February 10, 2022
Great way to utilize UConn's perimeter length and strength in the post pic.twitter.com/RPJFL6unTw
Jackson has still not scratched the surface of his true potential. There is a case to be made that he is the most athletic player ever to don a UConn uniform, and with players who have that much ability, it is seldom fully recognized. This could be a situation where UConn fans will always be kind of waiting for Jackson to reach this “peak,” but the reality is that he has improved immensely since his first season, and will have even more operating power and leadership of this team going into his junior year, especially with the departures of most of the current backcourt.
He can still play too sped-up at times, and will need to increase his scoring output and shot attempts (he has two games in his career with double digit field goal attempts), but Jackson is truly a unique talent and if he’s able to get his body, brain, and his game more in sync next season, he could explode.