How playing time for UConn freshmen Rahsool Diggins, Samson Johnson compares to other top recruits

Photo of David Borges

Dan Hurley is facing perhaps the most criticism he’s had in his four years as UConn’s head coach, and he hears it.

“At a place like this,” he said on Monday, “anytime you lose, there’s a certain level of hysteria that begins.”

With that in mind, it is perhaps ironic that UConn (10-4, 1-2 Big East) faces St. John’s on Wednesday at Gampel Pavilion (8:30 p.m., FS1). It was a loss to the Red Storm at Gampel nearly a year earlier (Jan. 18, 2021) that earned Hurley some of the first overt criticisms of his coaching strategy.

UConn led for much of the game as center Adama Sanogo was nearly unstoppable with 12 points over the first 27 minutes. But he didn’t play at all the final 13 minutes as St. John’s went with a smaller lineup, the Red Storm rallied back to win, 74-70, and Hurley got pilloried on social media.

Flash forward nearly a year later, and Hurley’s late-game strategies are being questioned after the Huskies lost their fourth game of the season by five points or less on Saturday against Seton Hall. And that’s not all that UConn fans are griping about.

Freshmen Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins, a pair of national top-70 recruits, haven’t seen the floor in over a month. Johnson, a 6-foot-10 forward whom Hurley claimed had “wall potential” (i.e., a future NBA lottery pick) prior to the season, hasn’t played since a seven-minute stint on Dec. 8 at West Virginia.

Diggins, a 6-2 point guard, hasn’t played since Dec. 4 against Grambling — even though the Huskies’ backcourt ballhandling, and press-breaking ability has been suspect.

Johnson has played in just seven games, averaging 2.6 points in 7.4 minutes. Diggins (1.4 points, 7.6 minutes) has played in just five games.

So what gives?

“There are no politics in minutes,” Hurley said. “If there was a guy that was killing it in practice, there would be a mutiny on this ship if I was holding a guy back. Throughout my career, as a coach, I’ve played freshmen — started them, played them in significant roles, throughout the multitude of places I’ve been.”

Clearly, Johnson and Diggins simply aren’t getting the job done in practice.

“You’ve got to be patient and become a good player, force your way on the court by how you show up for practice every day,” Hurley said. “When you consistently show us you’re a better option than what we’re sending out on the court, then you go out there.”

Hurley has played freshmen significant minutes at Wagner, Rhode Island and UConn. Two years ago, James Bouknight averaged 25.9 minutes per game and was the Huskies’ second-leading scorer. Last season, Sanogo started 20 games, averaging 17 minutes (and likely more if not for foul trouble, and that St. John’s game!). Andre Jackson emerged as a key part of the rotation later last season.

This year, Jordan Hawkins — the most highly-touted of UConn’s three-man, top-15 recruiting class — has started four games and is averaging 6.4 points in 16 minutes despite some recent struggles.

Hurley also correctly points out that there aren’t many freshmen getting big minutes in any program, a result of veteran players taking advantage of an extra “COVID” season. Especially in the Big East, where teams like Providence and Seton Hall are filled with fourth-, fifth-, even sixth-year players.

So how does the relative lack of playing time for Johnson (the No. 57 recruit, per 247) and Diggins (No. 61) compare to freshmen of similar recruiting ranking?

A glance at 247Sports.com’s top 70 recruits from the Class of 2021 reveals that most are getting more playing time than either Johnson or Diggins. But let’s look closer.

First, forget about the top 25 recruits — all of whom are averaging at least double-digits, and some leading their respective teams in scoring. They’re in class of their own. No. 1 overall recruit Chet Holmgren of Gonzaga (13.4 ppg), No. 2 Paolo Banchero of Duke (17.3) and No. 4 Jabari Smith of Auburn (15.5) could be the top three picks in the 2022 NBA Draft. Seven of the top nine rated recruits are averaging at least 10.8 points per game.

Move down to the top 26-50 rated recruits and most are playing significant roles for their teams. But not all. Oregon’s Nate Brile (No. 26) is averaging just 6.7 minutes per game. Texas’ Jaylon Tyson has played in just eight games, averaging 7 minutes.

At Villanova, where Hall of Fame coach Jay Wright is notoriously stingy with freshman minutes, No. 43 recruit Jordan Longino has played in just 10 of 15 games, averaging 8.6 minutes. Right behind him, No. 44 recruit Bryce Hopkins has played in all 15 of Kentucky’s games, but is averaging just 8.5 minutes.

How about the players right around Johnson and Diggins in the rankings? Hawkins, No. 55, is certainly much more part of the Huskies’ rotation than his freshmen teammates. But in between Hawkins and Johnson is Tennessee’s Jahmai Mashack, who is averaging just 6 minutes in 11 games.

Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard (No. 68) is certainly an outlier, second on the Bluejays in scoring at 12.1 per game while logging 35.1 minutes per game — more than any other of the top 70 recruits. Dayton’s DaRon Holmes (No. 54), Ole Miss’s Daeshun Ruffin (No. 60) and Purdue’s Caleb Furst (No. 66) are all logging more than 20 minutes per game.

But Indiana’s Logan Duncomb (No. 67) has played in just three of the Hoosiers’ first 15 games. No. 62 Dontrez Styles has averaged just 3.4 minutes at North Carolina, No. 63 Pierre Brooks just 3.6 minutes at Michigan State.

As UConn prepares for St. John’s, a team that likes to play pressure defense and speed up the tempo, perhaps Diggins can consider Justice Williams’ situation at LSU. Williams, the No. 69 overall recruit, didn’t play at all in the Tigers’ first 12 games this season. There were some injury issues, but there was also talk of a possible redshirt.

Then, on Dec. 29 at Auburn, Williams was thrown into the fire, playing 23 minutes and scoring seven points off the bench in a loss. He’s played more limited minutes in LSU’s past two games against Kentucky and Tennessee.

Williams apparently impressed LSU’s coaching staff in practice. He finally got an opportunity, and made something of it.

There is still time for Rahsool Diggins and Samson Johnson to do the same.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com