In 10 games, two of this year’s freshmen, Akok Akok and James Bouknight, have rapidly ascended from non-factors to key contributors. Among the fanbase, they went from relatively unknown to fan favorites seemingly overnight.
But the third piece of the freshman trio, Jalen Gaffney, has remained mostly in the background. That was until Wednesday’s dominant victory over Saint Peter’s, when Gaffney set new career-highs in points, assists and minutes, finishing with 10 points (3-of-3 from the field) and five assists in 20 minutes.
“Jalen’s gonna be a tremendous player,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “That’s a tough team for a freshman guard to play against because they get after you and they’re as gritty and tough as it gets, so that was really good to see for his confidence.”
In a vacuum, it was a fantastic game off the bench for Gaffney. But in context, the narrative is a bit uglier. Coming into the night, Gaffney had scored seven points, total, all season. It was the first game of his UConn career in which Gaffney made multiple field goals. In mid-December.
Inconsistent playing time has been a big part of Gaffney’s struggles, and with a stacked backcourt, it’s not hard to see why minutes have been hard to come by for the freshman guard. But after earning 13 minutes against Miami followed by 17 minutes vs. Maine, it seemed he was gradually carving out a spot in the rotation.
However, entering Wednesday, Gaffney had seen just nine total minutes in UConn’s previous two games, including just two in his Madison Square Garden debut. Hurley praised Gaffney’s response to that minimal showing, saying that he worked as hard as anyone in practice this week. After the game, Gaffney admitted he was frustrated but defended his coach’s decision.
“It definitely added some motivation. I was disappointed not playing, [Hurley] said I wasn’t ready, and honestly, I don’t think I was ready for the bright lights and so much pressure,” Gaffney said. “Coming into practice, I was ready and focused, and just worked my butt off.”
While Gaffney admitted that his ankle injury sustained in the preseason contributed some early season struggles, it seems apparent that he, his coach and his teammates all know the largest obstacle to overcome: confidence.
“He was just aggressive tonight,” Tyler Polley, who had a team-high 12 points on the night, said after the win. “In past games, he wasn’t aggressive or confident, but tonight he was aggressive and confident. When he plays like that, he can do that every night.”
It’s one thing to be a pass-first point guard. It’s another to look entirely uninterested in shooting the ball, as Gaffney has often appeared this season — his season-high in field goals attempted is four. That’s largely why Gaffney’s confident performance on Wednesday was so encouraging.
On his first shot attempt, Gaffney pulled up from beyond the arc without hesitation and drilled a 3, just his second of the season. Seeing that first shot go down, along with hard work in practice, provided the confidence that has been missing for much of the season.
“It was playing hard in practice, and just hitting that first shot, you’re immediately into the game and focused,” Gaffney said on what changed on Wednesday. “Coach always says that preparation is what makes you win or lose a game, so I think just me playing hard in practice, I had confidence coming in.”
Gaffney didn’t attempt another 3, but had several aggressive drives to the hoop throughout Wednesday’s game, often being rewarded with a foul call or finishing through contact at the rim. Late in the second half, Gaffney drove, faked a pass to the corner and then put it up, drawing a whistle and making the shot through contact for an and-one.
“He was aggressive, he was assertive,” Hurley said. “When his physical maturity catches up with his skill and game, he’s gonna be really, really good.”
Besides scoring, Gaffney was just as impressive as a distributor. He dished out a career-high five assists, and some pretty ones at that. A beautifully executed fast break in the first half went Bouknight to Gaffney to Akok for an emphatic and-one slam. Later in the first, as the shot clock ticked down, rather than panic or force up a shot, Gaffney pivoted and found a wide-open Polley at the top of the arc, who drilled the shot as the shot clock expired. It was the type of play you’d expect from a veteran guard, not an inexperienced freshman.
“The first couple games, I was just timid out there and nervous,” Gaffney said. “Tonight, I just got lost in the game; driving to the basket, getting people open shots, finding my own shot and just playing with confidence.”
Hurley added that it’s “critical” for Gaffney to play 15 to 20 minutes a game for the team to succeed. If he continues to play like he did on Wednesday, 20 minutes might not be enough.