Tristen Newton's remarkable journey from underrated high school recruit to UConn's star point guard

GLENDALE, Arizona — UConn has dominated the NCAA tournament for two straight years now and leading the charge as floor general is 6-foot-5 guard Tristen Newton.

The fifth-year senior transferred in two seasons ago and has been the anchor for Dan Hurley's squad this season. Last year he averaged 10.1 points and 4.7 assists per game as the Huskies marched their way to a national championship. This year, as the Huskies enter Saturday's Final Four matchup against Alabama with eyes on a second straight national title, he's taken on more of a leadership role.

"Regardless of what happened last year, we have a whole different team and a whole different outlook on the game," Newton told Yahoo Sports. "I’m not that much of a vocal guy. I’ll go out there and show the young guys what they need to do. I really credit that from Andre [Jackson Jr.] from last year and he really showed us new guys how UConn works and I feel like since he left, I’ve taken over that role and I credit him for all of that."

Newton's journey to UConn has been unique, with twists and turns. He played high school basketball at Burges High School in El Paso, Texas, and didn't receive any interest or offers from a single Division I high-major program. It's not like he was flying completely under the radar though. He scored over 3,200 points in his high school career and scored 51 points in a playoff game as a sophomore against a future lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft in Jarrett Culver.

Tristen Newton has gone from role player to leader for a UConn team trying to win back-to-back national titles. (Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Tristen Newton has gone from role player to leader for a UConn team trying to win back-to-back national titles. (Photo by Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

When it came time to choose a college program, he chose East Carolina over Delaware State, Evansville, Northeastern and Rio Grande.

"Sometimes you’re overlooked for a reason and I feel like my reason was because I was in El Paso where there’s not much competition," Newton said. "I see why not a lot of college coaches [came] out there and why they didn’t see me. The talent was never the issue, I just had to be patient and continue to work to where I am today."

Newton thrived at East Carolina and by his junior year he was averaging 17.7 points and 5.1 assists per game. During his freshman year at ECU, he had a season-high 25 points against his future team, UConn, possibly foreshadowing what was to come for his career. When Newton chose to enter the transfer portal after three seasons at the mid-major level, several high-major schools came calling. It came down to Gonzaga, Texas A&M and UConn, but once he and his family visited the campus and met with the coaches, his decision was made.

"At ECU I always thought I could play at a higher level," Newton said. "Getting to UConn, it was a struggle at first because it’s a different kind of environment and it was a basketball state and the competition was elevated. I took things very seriously and coach always says that our practices are harder than games so I always went hard in practice and really grew from that."

Newton has thrived in coach Hurley's system. Even with the countless sets that UConn runs and the rotations on defense, he's impacted the game in a variety of ways. On a team that has been the No. 1-ranked team in the country the majority of the season, Newton leads UConn in points (15.2) and assists (6.1).

"He’s a dog on the floor," teammate Donovan Clingan told Yahoo Sports. "He’s willing to go out there and give everything he has for a full 40 minutes and whatever the team needs from him to win, he’s going to do it. He wants to see everyone on the floor succeed and he’s not selfish. He’s not about himself and he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had."

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Tristen Newton
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2023 - 2024 season

Stephon Castle, star freshman and projected lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, echoed Clingan and credits Newton for helping him adjust to the college game.

"He kind of took me under his wing a little bit, especially when I was coming off my injury," Castle said. "He helped me block out the noise and him just being the best point guard in the country, playing alongside him, what more could a freshman ask for? This year has been great just learning from him and he’s been a great leader for all of us."

Newton, 22, tested the NBA waters last year and elected to return for one more year. He's currently not listed on any mock drafts but that could change during the pre-draft process with how well he played all season and how consistent he was a playmaker, limiting his turnovers under pressure.

“These front offices, a lot of it is analytics based,” Hurley told reporters earlier this week. “A lot of teams value him a lot more than these mock drafts do … He’s 6-5. He rebounds. He facilitates, play-makes, and shoots NBA threes with pretty good efficiency, and he's a champion. I think he's going to play in the NBA for 12 to 15 years.”

In a draft class that is wide open and a lot of projected movement on NBA Draft boards between now and June, Newton is a player that could sneak into the early second round. It's been Clingan and Castle getting draft buzz all season long and Newton remains concerned about one thing only — winning.

"My game speaks for itself and I don't really pay attention to mock drafts," Newton said. "We're focused on getting past Alabama first and then the goal all season has been to go back to back and make history. That's all I'm focused on now."

The Huskies have beaten their tournament opponents by an average of 27.8 points and will look to advance to the championship game Monday night behind their zero-star, underrated high school recruit that has become one of the best point guards in college basketball.