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Conditioning key for Dorka Juhász in second season at UConn

If Juhász can avoid nagging injuries and stay in shape, Geno Auriemma believes she could be one of the top players in the country.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Geno Auriemma wasted no time setting high expectations for Dorka Juhász’s second season at UConn. Less than a week into summer workouts — which Juhász can’t even fully participate in while recovering from a fractured wrist that ended her first campaign in Storrs — the coach spoke in no uncertain terms about the graduate post player.

“I think Dorka’s going to have the kind of season where I’d be shocked if she wasn’t one of the top five or six players picked in the draft next year,” Auriemma said.

It’s a prediction that’s simultaneously bold and also relatively mundane. Juhász is a physical, 6-foot-5 forward who can hit shots from the perimeter, so she has the tools to play at the next level. She also only averaged 7.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in her first year as a Husky, which means she still needs to prove that she can fully utilize those tools.

Last season, Juhász had moments where she looked borderline unstoppable, whether it be the exhibition against Fort Hays State when she totaled 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting to go with eight rebounds; a 16-point, 16-boards effort over UCLA to stave off back-to-back losses followed by a 15-point, eight-rebound performance against Louisville; the three-game stretch in January when she averaged 12.0 points and 10.0 rebounds; the streak of four straight games with four assists each time out in February — which also featured performances of 22 and 21 points in consecutive games; or a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament opener.

Those were just the peaks in an often rocky campaign, though. In the first seven games of the regular season, Juhász scored a total of 20 points while turning the ball over 12 times. After Juhász’s double-double in the first game of the NCAA Tournament, she went 0-9 from the field over the next two contests and got benched in the Sweet Sixteen after just three minutes of action. Those are just the most notable occasions when she was a non-factor.

With such an up-and-down year, Juhász has a simple goal for the upcoming campaign.

“Be more consistent,” she said.

To do so, Juhász has simple instructions from Auriemma. In the coach’s mind, Juhász’s potential breakout won’t be a result of increased comfort in the system with one year under her belt or the larger opportunity with Olivia Nelson-Ododa off to the WNBA. Instead, she’ll need to be in the best shape of her life.

“Conditioning wise, we have to be make sure that she’s can go 30 minutes but more importantly, be able to go five, six, seven minutes in a row and not have three great minutes and then start to dip a little bit,” Auriemma said. “Last year when she was good, she was amazing. But then when the fatigue factor came in, it really affected her.”

Last year, Juhász entered the preseason in good shape before a slew of injuries slowly eroded her fitness level.

“I started out really good last summer and then there were just those nagging injuries that kind of kept me out of it,” she said. “I had a quad strain, I was out for a couple of weeks. So it was always something that kind of kept me out of the game. Then the stress reaction [in my foot].”

Because of that, injury prevention is Juhász’s focus in order to maintain her conditioning — while recovering from an injury. In the Elite Eight, she suffered a fractured and dislocated left wrist after being fouled under the basket. If there’s any silver lining, it’s that Juhász can still participate in plenty of exercises and activities as long as it doesn’t involve her left wrist, unlike her teammate Caroline Ducharme, who’s significantly more limited while working back from hip surgery.

“My legs are working so that means that I can run a lot. I can do everything with my right hand,” Juhász said. “This year, I think my focus is to stay healthy. So [I’m] working hard but also being mindful of my recovery process and just making sure I do everything on my own outside of basketball that can help me get through the season and be healthy. Then hopefully, the conditioning part is not going to be a problem.”

By adding Juhász last summer, Auriemma hoped she would be the piece that put UConn over the top to break through in the Final Four and win the program’s 12th national championship. That dream came crashing down when Juhász got hurt in the Regional Final. Although the Huskies pushed through to the title game, they were heavily outmatched by South Carolina in the frontcourt and lost the rebounding battle 49-24.

But if Juhász can stay healthy this season, she could be the post presence UConn has been missing.

“We have to be able to do two things better than we did last year, I think: We have to score more in the lane and we have to defend better in the lane,” Auriemma said. “I think Dorka can be that person.”