Dan Hurley breaks down UConn men’s basketball roster, sees big things from Samson Johnson, Jordan Hawkins

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Dan Hurley is as comfortable and confident as he has been since coming to UConn in 2018. As the season draws near the Huskies men’s basketball coach knows his roster — an experienced group — and his players know him.

“We’ve got a lot of quality that has been part of a strong culture, a winning culture now, a professional culture,” Hurley told the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce Wednesday at its breakfast meeting. “You’re always anxious and a little bit nervous as a coach knowing who your team is before real game competition, but since I’ve been at UConn this is the most confident and relaxed that I’ve felt going into a year.”

An October address to the Middlesex Chamber is an annual tradition for UConn coaches dating back to Jim Calhoun. “A real signal that winter’s coming and it’s our time to perform,” Hurley said.

As is his custom, Hurley took the occasion to break down his roster, player by player, including a heralded foursome of freshmen. “Some days they play like five stars,” he said. “Some days maybe three stars. So it does come out to a four.”

And in a week in which the Huskies were ranked 24th in the AP preseason poll and No. 2 in the Big East coaches’ poll, he weighed in on his four most experienced players returning from the NCAA Tournament experience of last March.

“We have an older, mature team that understands what it takes,” Hurley said.

Here is Hurley’s look at the 2021-22 UConn men’s basketball team:

R.J. Cole, G, Gr.

“Huge year for R.J. Last year he had a really good year considering it [was] his first year eligible moving up from a mid-major [Howard] to the top of the food chain without the runway of a nonconference schedule, a full summer or preseason. It led to some inconsistency. And being in the backcourt with James Bouknight maybe forced R.J. into being a little more of a game manager, and he didn’t necessarily play to all his aggressiveness and abilities as an offensive player. He’s going to have a lot more of a chance to hunt his offense. We need to go from 12 [point] and four [assists] to 16 and 5 1/2 or six assists.”

Tyler Polley, F, Gr.

“We think we’re going to get a better version of Tyler this year. That second year back from an ACL surgery, players that deal with that all see a spike in their play. Tyler’s shooting, length and size as a defender make him an incredibly valuable part of the program. For us to take the next step we need more production on the backboard.”

Isaiah Whaley, F, Gr.

“He’s become such a program and fan favorite. I don’t know that he statistically blows you away with any of his numbers, maybe as an offensive rebounder, but his overall value in terms of the high energy and motor that he plays with ... he’s absolutely disruptive defensively in the ball-screen game. What he does is very rare, and ball-screen defense is such a huge part of basketball now. We need him to make 3s, especially when he plays the four spot next to Adama Sanogo.”

Tyrese Martin, G, Sr.

“A critical guy. Up until his late-season swoon and shooting struggles, Tyrese was having a great year. We need that consistency all through the year. We need him to be that third scorer, that all-conference-level player. He’s a two-way player, a guy that really helps you on the backboard.”

Akok Akok, F, R-Jr.

“He’s coming off the best he has looked for us in an intrasquad scrimmage that we ran at the XL Center the other day with referees. He looked good, made a 3, finished around the rim. Akok will be better than he was in that second year removed from major [Achilles] surgery.”

Jalen Gaffney, G, Jr.

“We know that he’s a good player and a very valuable player and he is going to play a big role. How big of a role will be determined in the next couple of weeks. He’s one of a couple of guys competing to potentially start on the perimeter. He brings an invaluable ability to really create off the dribble. He was one of the few guys who really played well in the Maryland [NCAA Tournament] game.”

Richie Springs, F, R-So.

“Richie has really matured and developed a lot. He’s in an incredibly competitive situation in terms of getting minutes in the front court. But he’s the type of guy we’d be very comfortable playing because he understands our system. He’s a hell of a rebounder and he can play either the four or the five.”

Andre Jackson, G, So.

“Andre is such an athletic freak. Right now it’s about developing an identity. He’s got this elite athletic ability and great vision and he’s an incredibly aggressive player. It’s just channeling those things into a script that you stick to as a player day in and day out. He has a chance, if he locks in on it and makes it his superpower, to be an elite defender, one of the best in the country. His ability to get the defensive rebound and push it in transition and create something with his speed and passing ability and his above-the-rim finishing can be a real weapon for us. He’s shooting the ball better than he’s ever shot the ball so he’s going to have a huge impact on the season.”

Adama Sanogo, F, So.

“Adama is going to establish himself this year. He’s such a rare individual in terms of how good he can be, how competitive he is, how driven he is to succeed, his work ethic. He’s down there shooting right now. The concerns with Adama are continuing to develop discipline on the defensive end and stay out of foul trouble because late in the year he was truly a force. He was honorable mention all-league, but he could play at a first-team all-conference level if he can stay out of foul trouble. And we’ve worked really hard on his passing out of the post because the traps will be coming, so developing him as a passer is the next step in his evolution.”

Rahsool Diggins, G, Fr.

“He took a knee bone bruise within the first practice or two, so he hasn’t had a chance to do much with us since the real stuff started in October. We saw flashes of his ability during the summer, but he hasn’t been real healthy. He’s got good size, physically very strong and a high skill level He’s going to be a real good player for us.”

Corey Floyd Jr., G, Fr.

“We’re all amazed by him, the way he’s been able to seamlessly jump into UConn-level, Top-25-projected, deep veteran team-level practices and fully function, being very, very mature. He’s 17 years old, practicing against 22-year-olds. He’s improved so much since he’s been here. He reminds me a lot of a kid I had at Rhode Island, Jared Terrell, a physically strong guard and he impacted winning so much.”

Jordan Hawkins, G, Fr.

“Samson [Johnson] and Jordan Hawkins, you just don’t think you’re going to get a full four years with either of those guys because they’re so talented and have so many traits that project to the NBA level. Jordan has a chance to have a bigger impact sooner because of what we lost on the perimeter with James [Bouknight]. Don’t go into the games expecting to compare the play style to Bouknight. It’s not the same type of flair off the dribble as a finisher, the windmills, the SportsCenter Top 10s, but Jordan in his own way is incredibly dynamic as a shooter. He’s got a chance to be one of the elite shooters in the country. I don’t know if there’s a guy with the footwork, coming off screens quickly, with elevation and how smooth he’s able to do it.”

Samson Johnson, F, Fr.

“He’s what you would hope your ‘stretch four’ man [would] look like. He can switch and pretty much be able to guard all five positions. He’s eventually going to be a competent-to-good 3-point shooter. And the stuff he does above the rim, with his cutting and ball-screen game, is elite. Both [Johnson and Hawkins] have potential to get on the [NBA] lottery wall here.”

Walk-ons

“Matt Garry and Andrew [Hurley] both dunked successfully on First Night, so those guys feel great about that. Matt had a brutal knee injury, he tore all of the ligaments in his knee as well as a micro-fracture surgery and meniscus. He had the full brutality with the knee and we talked about setting a goal of dunking on First Night as something to strive for every day with his rehab, and Matt was able to do that. The pride of Southington.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com