It would not be an understatement to say that Samson Johnson’s collegiate career hasn’t had the ‘Hollywood’ start he desired. Coming into Storrs, Connecticut, in June 2021, many had sky-high expectations of Johnson, including head coach Dan Hurley. The coach described Johnson as having “wall potential,” referring to the wall with banners of all the UConn alumni who were lottery picks. He has yet to live up to that billing, though, with injuries derailing his progress. Despite facing adversity, the 21-year-old has a massive opportunity this season to carve out a role in a program with its eyes set on back-to-back National Championships.
As a freshman, Johnson’s role was minimal— averaging 5.2 minutes in 12 games and less than a field goal per contest. When he committed to Storrs, many believed he would garner more minutes, especially with Hurley’s high-praise. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA granted players an extra year of eligibility, which led to a logjam of UConn’s frontcourt, ultimately hindering Johnson’s development. In the 2022-2023 season, Johnson earned himself a starting spot. On opening night, he started at the four for the Huskies against Stonehill and got off to a solid start — scoring seven and snagging three boards in 16 minutes of work. However, he suffered a foot injury, which kept him on the bench until late January, leaving him behind Alex Karaban, the Huskies’ leader in minutes.
Since he played less due to his injury, Hurley and the UConn coaching staff essentially re-recruited Johnson this summer. Ultimately, Johnson decided to stay at UConn, because the coaches emphasized that he would play a more prominent role this season.
It’s not just coaches talk that Johnson will play a more significant role this season. Think about it: Donovan Clingan has missed most of this month with a foot injury and Adama Sanogo is in the NBA. Someone needs to step up as the player who can play while Clingan and Karaban rest, and who better than Johnson? The only bench pieces for Connecticut that stand above 6 foot 10 inches are Johnson and freshman Youssouf Singare, though it’s likely Singare’s game needs more development.
It makes sense for the 21-year-old to be the backup big man — a fact Hurley more than confirmed.
“I think [Johnson’s] a great 1-2 punch right now at center with Donovan”, noted Hurley. He’s in a great spot.”
If you’re not a believer in Johnson’s prowess yet, don’t forget that coming into college, Johnson was a top-50 recruit and before his injury, he was the starting power forward. With his nearly 7-foot stature, he can stretch the floor and still be a threat in the paint and the rebounding department.
This season, Johnson could play the role Clingan took on last season. Clingan played nearly 13 minutes a game, averaging 6.9 points per game and 5.6 rebounds per game. He played the backup role last season to Sanogo, who averaged about 27 minutes per game. They were a lethal 1-2 punch that gave UConn the winning edge en route to a fifth national championship.
Ultimately, if the Huskies want to hang another championship banner in Gampel Pavilion, they will need Johnson to be the player that Hurley recruited. If he performs at the high level that many expect, don’t be surprised if he plays an even more significant role than Clingan did last year.