UConn men's basketball sophomore Samson Johnson aims to turn potential to production: 'High impact role'

STORRS — Samson Johnson arrived at UConn in June 2021 and coach Dan Hurley, meeting him for the first time, measured his height and wingspan and said, “NBA central casting.”

When Johnson began practicing with the team, Hurley looked up at the banners celebrating UConn’s draft lottery selections in the Werth Champions Center and said Johnson had the same “Wall potential.”

Johnson, a 6-foot-10 forward, played just 68 minutes as a freshman, averaging 1.7 points and 1.1 rebounds.

What’s in the cards for 2022-23?

“Things open up a great deal for him,” Hurley said. “He was in a veteran-laden team, a veteran-laden frontcourt. He was pushing people last year to get on the court. We just had guys who were much more experienced. But he’s a guy that has NBA-level physical gifts. He was a big, big recruit for us, a top-50 player coming out of high school. He’s going to get a great opportunity here to have a big impact. It’s open for him to earn a starting spot. It’s open for him to have a high impact role off the bench. But he’ll be in one of those two spots for us.”

Johnson, originally from Lome, Togo, was squeezed out of the rotation and pushed to the bench last season by the production of power forward Isaiah Whaley and small forward Tyrese Martin, both now departed. That was time spent developing an understanding, UConn hopes, for the necessary nuance and know-how an elite player must possess.

“He just knows more about the game,” Hurley said. “You can look at a guy’s physical talent and that’s one thing. [He is] a graceful athlete at almost 6-10, as graceful an athlete you almost can be at that size. But you have to understand where you should be and what your responsibilities are at both ends of the court and on the backboard relative to the nine other players. You have to also be able to absorb scouting reports. You have to be able to absorb situational basketball. And it’s a lot for a guy who’s been in the country for, this will be his fourth year.”

This season’s Huskies, who open practice the last week of September, are constructed in a way to allow Hurley to go deeper into his bench — maybe 10 deep, he said — and to depend on Johnson’s skill, even while he works on the unrefined areas of his game.

Hurley said Johnson will be allowed to play through mistakes, particularly in early-season non-conference games. The hope is that, come New Year’s and the thick of Big East play, the Huskies will have a fluid and consistent player in Johnson, who is intriguing for skills both near the basket and on the perimeter. He has a 7-5 wingspan and a variety of tools. 

Experience can trump length and skill, though. Johnson’s game experience in 2021-22 was basically to watch. With a year in a program with, say, 150 practices under his belt, Johnson enters his sophomore season feeling like a different player.

“I’m going with a lot of confidence,” he said.

Johnson was 198 pounds when he arrived at UConn. He’s up to 210.  

“Now I’m bumping into guys, making tough plays,” Johnson said.

Hurley constantly reinforces his belief in Johnson’s potential in 1-on-1 conversations.

NBA central casting? Still a phrase put to use. Wall potential? Still mentioned.

“He tells me that every single day,” Johnson said. “That just improves my confidence. That tells me I can do [anything]. He told me my potential is off the charts. He told me I can do things not a lot of people can do. Just hearing that from him every single day — not just once or twice, every single day — it boosts my confidence. A lot of pressure, too.”

Johnson spent two and a half years at The Patrick School in Hillside, N.J., where was teammates with UConn junior Adama Sanogo.  

“Adama is just a player who makes you go harder,” Johnson said. “Even when you don’t feel like going harder, he just pushes you by talking or his actions. He’s a good teammate.”

Johnson’s teammates are curious to see what he’ll make of his sophomore season.

“It’s all about how fast he’s going to figure out all the little things,” junior Andre Jackson said. “He’s got it all when it comes to athleticism and being able to shoot the ball at that height, being able to have control over the ball when he dribbles it. It’s all going to be, for him, about defensive mechanics, being in the right spots, knowing the plays and knowing his defensive and offensive assignments, to be honest. The sky is the limit. He has great potential. I’m really excited for him. I think he’s going to have a breakout year.”

A breakout year could mean a lot of things. First, Johnson has to prove worthy of remaining on the court for long stretches. He appeared in 13 of 33 games last season, averaging 1.7 points and 1.1 rebounds. He shot 55.6 percent from the field (10 of 18) and 5.2 minutes.  

Johnson played a career-high 20 minutes Dec. 4 against Grambling, finished with career highs of five points and six rebounds. From February on, he appeared in just four games, playing a total of eight minutes without taking a shot.  

“I think I have a lot more confidence,” Hurley said. “And he knows more.”