As we grow nearer to the start of the highly anticipated UConn basketball season (41 days, but who’s counting?), things are beginning to take shape for the team, but questions still linger. Who will be the stars? Who will start? Who will get significant minutes? Last week, Mike Anthony of Hearst CT Media interviewed Huskies head coach Dan Hurley on the state of the program, where the coach revealed that junior Akok Akok and freshman Samuel Johnson are in a fierce battle for the backup ‘four’ slot. Stratton Stave and Evan Rodriguez debate who is more deserving in this week’s point/counterpoint.
Stratton: To start this out, I think that Evan and I can both agree that Akok and Johnson are both great players in their own right and would each deserve this spot if the other was not in their way. However, they are and Akok is the clear choice between the two. Akok holds a massively intimidating defensive presence, with the ability to block shots at an incredibly high rate. Before going out for the season to an injured achilles in 2019, Akok was a top-10 shot blocker in the country, averaging 2.6 swats per game across his 25 contests. When on the floor, Akok completely changed the opponent’s gameplan. They were forced to either get their shots swatted inside by the 6-foot-9 NBA prospect or shoot from outside. The way Akok anchored the Huskies’ defense made them very difficult to score on and it will only improve with the weight that he put on in the past year and a half. Not only should he have his blocking abilities, the new strength should prevent him from getting bullied inside by bigger defenders, a concern that some had.
Evan: Honestly, I don’t really see it as such a clear choice for Akok and I would be leaning towards Johnson if I were creating a game plan for the Huskies. As you said, Akok is coming off a serious achilles injury in 2019 and there really is no guarantee that he will be right back to where he left off despite the impressive weight gain. With Johnson, you know exactly what you’re getting and he will most certainly add to his already impressive statline throughout the season. With a high school senior year that saw Johnson averaging nearly 3.5 blocks per game, he already looks great from the defensive end. What separates Johnson from Akok is Johnson’s offensive game. In 28 minutes per game, Akok only averaged 5.8 points per game and shot fairly below average at 41.3% a game. Johnson was able to average nearly 14 points per game and showed encouraging signs of an effective jump shot, a trait that Akok has yet to fully develop with below average shooting statistics. Johnson is only going to get better throughout the year and if Akok is coming off an injury, why shouldn’t Hurley let Akok slowly adjust back to his impressive former level. For now, the choice is Johnson.
Stratton: The thing about Akok’s injury is that he is now 100% healthy. In a similar situation to that of Brooklyn Nets superstar, Kevin Durant, who also tore his achilles, came back just as good in the same amount of time. Now, I know that different people recover differently, but Hurley has talked numerous times about how Akok is looking great in the offseason and videos from UConn’s social media teams have confirmed that. A benefit that players do see during an injury such as an achilles injury is plenty of time to work on shot mechanics. In 2019, Akok only shot 26.5% from beyond the arc, but with time to practice his shot and an inability to do contact drills, it is highly likely that his shooting will see an increase in production this year. Additionally, at the college level, big men can often see a dip in their impact as compared to high school because of the increased physicality at the college level. Akok saw this. Granted though, in New Jersey, Samson was playing against some great players, but the talent is just going to be more challenging, especially with many opposing upperclassmen already on 3-4 years of strength training programs. I just don’t totally know what we’re entirely getting quite yet with Johnson, so I’ll stand pat with Akok’s jumper that is due for improvement.
Evan: If we’re going to talk about Akok’s level of work in the gym, why not mention Johnson, who was heavily recruited for his impressive work ethic and will continue to improve like Akok. Unless Akok comes back from injury with a considerable improvement in his all-around game, I really don’t believe he’s the better option. I’m heavily confident that Johnson is willing to outwork anyone who stands in his way, especially for an important spot in the Huskies roster. While Akok may see an improvement in his shot and even that’s questionable, Johnson already has a solid and reliable jumpshot that will continue to improve over time as he garners more minutes in UConn’s lineup. Even with an increase in talent, I believe that Johnson will work heavily to compete and will continue with the talented play that UConn scouted the young big man for. With how well fellow big man Adama Sanogo’s transition to college basketball was, I don’t think it’s a far stretch at all to expect the same or even better for someone as good as Johnson, especially with both talented big men coming from the same high school.
Stratton: As we discussed a few weeks ago, we obviously disagree about how comparable Samson Johnson and his high school/current teammate Adama Sanogo are. Sanogo came to UConn with a college-ready body, sitting at 6-foot-9 and 260 lbs, while Johnson measured in at 6-foot-10 and 200 lbs. It will be difficult to bully defenders inside offensively with his body type, which will force him to focus more on shooting threes. Especially with the college line moving back next year, the adjustment to shooting will likely cause a hit in his efficiency from deep. The college line is now about 2.5 feet further than the high school line, which is a lot when it comes to shooting. At the end of the day, Akok is just more accustomed to the college game. We’ve seen Akok play in college and there is buzz that his increased strength will make him an absolute force this year. I’m not going to say that Johnson will not be better than Akok by the end of the year, but he is largely unproven right now and will endure some growing pains, which is why Akok is the better and safer option for the Huskies.
Evan: I would say that Johnson has certainly proven himself enough, especially to Hurley. Hurley has continued to praise Johnson’s athletic talent when talking about the battle between Akok and Johnson for the third frontcourt spot. While it will be difficult to bully defenders inside offensively with his body type, I have a hard time believing that Johnson is not up for the challenge with his level of athletic talent and work ethic. The noticeable difference in the three point line is definitely a good point, but Johnson is still able to knock down mid-range jump shots consistently and can continue to adapt later in the year to three point jump shots. While Akok may have increased his strength over the offseason, his jump shot is still a question mark in a level of basketball where a dependable jump shot is highly necessary. At the team’s current offensive state, where they lost a dependable offensive weapon in guard James Bouknight due to the guard’s transition to the NBA, the Huskies could use some extra offense and Johnson is perfect to fill that role. Even if we have yet to see Johnson play a single minute of college basketball, I’m much more inclined to take the freshman with his skill set and hype over Akok, who still has so many question marks. I love Akok’s top tier defense and what it brings to the Huskies, but it’s just not enough to put him over Johnson for me. While many of these questions will be answered as the season progresses and he could certainly prove me wrong , I’m taking Johnson as my choice for right now.