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Connecticut’s Samson Johnson in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn men’s basketball coach Dan Hurley, left, and assistant coach Kimani Young meet with incoming freshman Samson Johnson for the first time before practice at the Werth Family UConn Basketball Champions Center on the UConn main campus in Storrs, Conn. Wednesday, June 9, 2021.
Samson Johnson looks to have a bigger impact his sophomore season at UConn.
Most UConn men’s basketball players have returned to their respective homes over the past couple of weeks, the annual diaspora that occurs between the end of exams in early-May and the beginning of summer courses in early-June.
Only one player remains on campus, a solitary figure working out seven days a week, lifting weights, eating “as healthy and as much as possible,” watching film and getting up shots inside the practice facility on whose wall his coach believes his banner will someday hang.
Samson Johnson didn’t play as much as he, UConn fans, and perhaps even coach Dan Hurley expected as a freshman this past season. But he fully intends on being a big factor next season, and is putting in the work this summer to ensure that.
“That’s going to help me have a great year next year,” Johnson predicted.
“I’m excited to play a guy of his talents,” the coach said. “It’s well-documented what I think of his talent. So, everyone’s going to get a chance to see him next year.”
Although Hurley only met him for the first time when Johnson first arrived on campus a little less than a year ago, no one has championed the 6-foot-10 forward more than the head coach. Last fall, Hurley famously noted that Johnson had “wall potential” — i.e., his banner would someday join those of fellow UConn NBA Draft lottery picks like James Bouknight, Kemba Walker and Ray Allen on the Werth Family Champions Center practice facility’s wall.
After Johnson swooped in for an impressive reverse layup, covering plenty of ground in just a few steps, during a preseason intrasquad game, Hurley noted that Johnson resembled a “pterodactyl” on the floor.
But the “wall potential” and “pterodactyl” were rarely seen over the course of the regular season.
“He was close last year, he was right there, to get an opportunity and to play the four for us off the bench,” Hurley said.
Johnson got a little run in some early-season games, but ultimately played just 13 games last season, averaging 1.7 points and 1.1 rebounds in 5.2 minutes per game. He played virtually no meaningful minutes in any Big East games.
“It’s hard to play with Tyrese (Martin) or Tyler (Polley) sometimes at the four,” Hurley added, “and then play Isaiah (Whaley) and Akok (Akok), as well, at the four, and then find minutes for a third big four.”
Still, Johnson felt it was a productive freshman season.
“I was able to get a lot done, learn from older guys like (Whaley), Tyler, Tyrese and all them,” he said. “It was a year of learning for me, to be honest. Hopefully, Year 2 goes as planned.”
Johnson said he learned fundamentals, how to be a team player and listen to coaches, coming in and working hard every day, “and understanding how the college game goes.”
He added that nothing really surprised him about college basketball, before pausing and noting one thing that caught his attention the most: “The physicality of the games in the Big East.”
And that’s a big reason why Samson Johnson remains on campus this month, trying to get bigger and stronger while also improving in other areas. Namely, shooting.
“They want me to come in and stretch the floor on offense,” Johnson noted, “and give 100-percent on both ends of the floor, so we can win a championship.”
Assuming Hurley wants to go with a bigger lineup, the starting four-spot might be up for grabs. Johnson and 6-8 redshirt freshman Alex Karaban would appear to be two leading candidates right now.
“Obviously, there’s an opportunity for guys like him and Alex to make a big impact on the team next year,” Hurley said. “The minutes will be there, and we’ll make sure that they have the opportunity.”
Hurley has stated he’d like to employ more of a “four-out” offense (four players out on the perimeter), and that suits Johnson just fine.
“Of course, of course, of course,” he said, emphatically. “I think that’s a really good thing for me, because I can shoot a little bit. I’m not really a back-to-the-rim guy. I can play on the perimeter, handle the ball a little bit.”
No question, the Huskies will need Johnson to rebound and block shots, as well. And if the Huskies need him to play more of a traditional center’s role at times?
“I think that’s on the coaches, to play me at the five if they want,” he said. “I think I can play the five if they need me to play the five.”
Either way, as has been well-documented, there’s no bigger supporter of Samson Johnson’s abilities than Dan Hurley.
“He tells me I can be on the wall someday, I have the potential to be on the wall, get drafted,” Johnson said. “It motivates me a lot. He doesn’t say that a lot about other players. He tells me that every single day when he sees me, and that just motivates me, makes me go a lot harder in drills, in practice, in workouts, in everything I do.”
“But,” Samson Johnson quickly added, “I have to put the work in. And that’s what I’m doing right now.”
UConn men’s basketball beat writer