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Unpacking the growing legend of Donovan Clingan

The 7-foot-2 freshman has been a revelation off the bench this season.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The state of Connecticut has its fair share of urban legends and tall tales. Most are tied into the spooky New England mystique. There’s the Essex Sea Serpent, melonheads, the Annabelle doll—it seems like every town in the Nutmeg state has some sort of folklore.

There’s a new one growing in Storrs, the Legend of Donovan Clingan, the Connecticut Kaiju. The UConn men's basketball freshman continues to arrive ahead of schedule, and is a very large (no pun intended) reason why the Huskies are a top-10 team in the country.

Ask any hoops fan from Connecticut and they’ll tell you they’ve been excited about the 7-foot-2 Bristol native since 2019. Ask those same people if they expected him to be this good, this fast, and you will get a resounding no.

Clingan came in as the 56th-ranked recruit in the 2022 class, a raw behemoth with a whole lot of question marks. Did staying at Bristol Central his senior year stunt his development? How does his footspeed translate to the college game? Is he a basketball player, or just a guy who was handed a ball because he was larger than everyone else?

Clingan has answered all of those questions and then some. He’s averaging 25 points, 17.8 rebounds, 5.8 blocks, and 1.5 steals per 40 minutes. He was named MVP of the Phil Knight Invitational in November and is a two-time Big East Freshman of the Week. His block percentage is fourth in the country and he’s the 35th-ranked player in the nation in Evan Miya’s Bayesian Performance Rating (BPR).

Beyond the analytics, Clingan passes the vaunted VaE test (Vibes and Eyes). He’s fully bought in to his backup role, looks like he genuinely enjoys playing the game, and has an infectious, almost boyish swagger.

After the Providence game in which he put up a 12-point, 10-rebound, five-block stat line in 21 minutes, he had this to say: “I wish I could have done more rebounding wise, making more layups, setting better screens, blocking more shots. I wish I could have done that stuff better and helped our team win.”

This is a kid that was raised right, appreciates the pedigree of Connecticut basketball, and is fully aware of the God-given talents he possesses. UConn fans should cherish every second he’s with the program, because it may not be for long.

Kessler declared after his sophomore year and went 22nd overall.

Clingan’s legend has grown so much that many perpetually-online fans are clamoring for Dan Hurley to give more minutes to Clingan and less to Adama Sanogo, who, as a reminder, is Big East Preseason Player of the Year. Sanogo is one of the best bigs in the country, but his back-to-the-basket game can muck up an offense, especially when faced with double teams. Clingan is a much more modern big in that he can rim-run and generate his points within the flow of an offense. They are the perfect complement to each other; when one struggles, the other tends to succeed. It's an embarrassment of riches for the Huskies to have, and what makes them a dangerous team in March regardless of January road losses.

But Clingan is still a freshman. He gets exposed on pick-and-rolls. Cross your fingers if he ventures outside the paint. His conditioning is not where it needs to be. There shouldn’t be any dramatic changing of the guard between Sanogo and Clingan, but it would be coaching malfeasance if more minutes were not found for the the freshman.

Look at last night: 21 points, 10 boards and five blocks, all in just 21 minutes, which is the most minutes he’s played in a game all season. Marquette had no answer for him, and unlike Sanogo, he’s much harder to scheme against, at least on offense.

Hopefully, the urban legend of the Connecticut Kaiju ends in a national championship, but where does it go from here, this year? Hurley went with a 1-3-1 zone in the final five minutes against Marquette to help imbue Clingan’s defensive talents. It was too little too late, but it was effective enough in a small sample size to warrant another crack in the softer portion of the upcoming Big East schedule.

Or, does Hurley defy the modern-day basketball gods and play Clingan and Sanogo together? They’re two space-clogging bigs and it would be a tall task to provide adequate floor spacing around them, but its worth a shot. See Hoop-Explorer’s data set below:

It’s way too small of a sample size to judge, but Calcaterra, Newton, and Hawkins around the two giants is intriguing in some matchups. Whatever way Hurley finds a bigger role for Clingan in 2023, the talented freshman is helping now.