Last week, after the University of Connecticut’s 89-54 win over Coppin State, I put out a tweet. That tweet read the following words: “Jalen Gaffney needs more love after this game. I can’t stress how important he is to this team.”
When Gaffney sat down with the press to answer questions after his incredible performance in the blowout, the guard remained humble and showed his value to this team. Whether that’s coming off the bench or playing with fellow teammate Akok Akok against the starting UConn lineup in practice, he enjoys getting better and embracing his role with this team. “It’s definitely my role right now to bring energy off the bench, be somebody that attacks, gets people open for shots and just play freely, just play my game. There’s a lot of emphasis on that, and I appreciate that,” said Gaffney.
After sitting down and pondering my tweet, I had to think why the junior wasn’t receiving his due credit. Gaffney is just as valuable to this team as anyone who wears the Husky colors this season. Even if someone discredits his impressive performance against Coppin State, he has still shown an immense amount of the talent he consistently brings to this Huskies lineup.
Last season, as Gaffney received fewer touches with current NBA rookie James Bouknight on the roster, the then-sophomore showed flashes of what he could provide. With multiple double-digit scoring games, highlighted by a 20-point performance against Seton Hall, the guard made his important spot on the team evident.
I feel that it’s important to discuss his current role on the team. This role sets Gaffney apart from everyone on the team and makes him one of my favorite players to watch as I cover UConn men’s basketball. He’s not the superstar that shows up in headlines or one of the first players that fans or commentators talk about when discussing UConn basketball. Gaffney is that spark that comes off the bench, instantly ready to contribute and get his teammates involved.
Gaffney’s primary strength to me is his brilliant ability to get everybody involved. The guard had eight assists on Saturday. Rather than primarily focusing on scoring the ball from his great three-point shot, Gaffney effectively distributed the ball across the court and left much of the scoring to starters like big man Adama Sanogo, Tyrese Martin and starting point guard RJ Cole.
With his teammates involved and his humble play shining on the court, coaches appreciate what Gaffney can bring to the team. Assistant coach Kimani Young has seen clear improvements with the guard as he entered this year. “He’s just been aggressive. That’s the buzzword we’ve been using with him from the coaching staff. Be a playmaker. Be an attacker. I think the maturity of having two years of experience developing physically. He’s a stronger player. We love what we’re seeing from him,” said Young.
The win on Saturday was the perfect example of everything Gaffney could bring to the court. Just like Young said, the guard was aggressive. He can attack the defense with a killer three-point shot, he can find open teammates with a quick pass or he can grab easy steals with his great defensive awareness. He’s not only comfortable with this role, but he also flourishes in it, and you couldn’t be any happier watching it unfold on the court.
As the Huskies take on tougher competition, such as Villanova and Auburn, I’m highly intrigued to see how Gaffney will respond to this challenge. While he had fewer touches in his first two seasons in Storrs, especially at the guard position, Gaffney has gotten more touches in his first two games, and he’s excelling. 10.5 points and 5.5 assists is undoubtedly a great point at the start of a long season.
With the Huskies set to take on Long Island University on Wednesday at Gampel Pavillion, Gaffney will have to do precisely what he has done this year. He’s ready to show off every asset of his game and help out his team. It’s time to recognize the guard for his contributions and what he will bring to the table in future contests. It’s time to acknowledge what UConn has with Gaffney, a spectacular talent.