UConn’s Geno Auriemma wants to see young post players improve: ‘You want to get good fast? Do it’

Geno Auriemma was talking about Aaliyah Edwards’ Olympic experience in one breath during Big East media day Tuesday at Madison Square Garden. In the next, he mentioned Piath Gabriel’s boundless potential.

“Player of the week in practice,” Auriemma said of Gabriel, who played a total of 55 minutes last season. “She’s going to help us. She doesn’t know it, but I know it.”

The Edwards-to-Gabriel transition is a succinct and general way to address UConn’s frontcourt situation with a broad brush. From experienced and successful to raw and skilled, the Huskies have five players who stand 6-foot-3 or taller.

That’s a 383-inch post player jigsaw puzzle that looks and feels more crowded by the week. Proven players are back, others on coming on, the rotation possibilities are many, nothing is completely settled and the responsibilities for each player are continually increasing.

All of that is positive, by the way. Auriemma can push every player and every button, tinker along the way, demanding that one player become better than next because, for this particular team, it feels like the time to accomplish something special is right now.

“There’s something to be learned by watching and waiting,” Auriemma said. “But if you’re not careful, you know what you learn? You learn how to watch and wait. I’m not a watch-and-wait kind of guy, you know? We don’t wait to give you your scholarship check every month, so why do we have to wait for you to get good? That’s always been my feeling with the freshmen. You want to get good fast? Do it. You want to wait? Wait. But the longer you wait, before you know it the season’s over.”

And someone else has solidified a role ahead of you.

And someone else has been recruited in the classes behind you.

UConn has established players in 6-5 senior Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the 2021 Big East co-defensive player of the year and a second-team all-conference player; 6-3 sophomore Edwards, the 2021 Big East sixth woman of the year and a member of the all-freshman team; and 6-5 graduate transfer Dorka Juhasz, a two-time All-Big Ten player at Ohio State.

There is also 6-5 sophomore Gabriel, who was an afterthought in 2020-21 and is recovering from offseason stomach surgery, and 6-5 freshman Amari DeBerry, who Auriemma considers the post player with the most skill.

Add 6-1 junior Aubrey Griffin and 6-2 freshman Saylor Poffenbarger, players who can work the post as part of smaller lineups, and the conversation about who’s going where and doing what on one of the deepest UConn teams in recent years includes consideration for the makeup of the frontcourt.

“I wish there was more a sense of urgency,” Auriemma said of the second-tier of players.

That means Gabriel and DeBerry. Auriemma doesn’t necessarily need them to develop into players he has to get on the court. He’d sure like them to. He then mentioned Stefanie Dolson.

“When Stef came she wasn’t ready to play but she was in the starting lineup Day 1 and played against Britney Griner in game two and fouled out in 13 minutes, didn’t score,” Auriemma said. “There’s something to be learned from being thrown into the fire.”

Dolson, then a freshman, actually played 12 minutes and scored two points in a 65-64 victory over Baylor at the XL Center on Nov. 16, 2010. Auriemma’s point was not lost, though — that there’s room for players to stand up and create some elbow space even in a crowded room.

Nelson-Ododa has been consistently productive through three years, starting 61 of 62 games in her sophomore and junior seasons. She averaged 12 points and team-best 7.1 rebounds, with a team-high 53 blocks, last season but struggled, as is her habit, against the best competition. She was 0-for-7 from the field and scored one point in a Final Four loss to Arizona.

Auriemma said Nelson-Ododa had a strong offseason and mentioned that a closer review of last season revealed that UConn struggled when she was in foul trouble. It is important for her to defend more efficiently. She has become a better ball handler, he said.

Edwards was the youngest member of Team Canada at the Tokyo Games.

“What I took most out of it was just how to be a professional,” Edwards said. “Being in that atmosphere, just a whole bunch of elite athletes, and their dedication and determination for the past four years just to get to that point, you can see it in the way they talk and the way they move. … In the summer I got the chance to be more of a perimeter player and guarding guards and working on different skills that way. Bringing that back to the team, expecting to improve and be better this coming season. Definitely being more versatile and just my basketball IQ heightened a lot, just to be among people who play overseas and in the WNBA.”

Edwards averaged 10.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 21.8 minutes last season.

“She showed us that she can play physically at a real high level and play with an intensity level that great players have, and that she’ll rebound and play defense and run the floor hard,” Auriemma said. “And what she didn’t show us was, can she make enough shots from the perimeter to make people not stand there and let us get to the basket? It would be easy for them to trap our ball-handler because they don’t have to respect her ability to shoot the ball, and that goes for all our big guys, not just Aaliyah. But I think that’s the next step her.”

Juhasz will likely be a mainstay in the rotation from the opener, probably initially in a support role to Nelson-Ododa and Edwards. She averaged 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds last season for the Buckeyes.

Then there are the projects Auriemma hopes come together quickly.

DeBerry was the 15th best prospect in the high school Class of 2021, according to ESPN.com.

“Amari might be the best skilled big kid we’ve had in a long time,” Auriemma said. “But I think climate change moves faster than she does sometimes. Once we get Amari going — which, the last couple days, I’ve seen the change. That kid is skilled as hell, more skilled than I thought. Just really knows how to play. I’ve been so impressed. But like I said, got to get her up to college speed.”

Gabriel became the subject of great curiosity Tuesday the longer Auriemma spoke.

“She runs, she’s got great feet and she wants to be good,” Auriemma said. “And she’s starting to get it, staring to understand it. She’s nowhere near 100 percent, but as she gets better every week and every month from that surgery, she’s going to help us a lot.”

This season?

“I don’t know,” Auriemma said.

Auriemma sees something in Gabriel that he did not last season.

“She was just shell-shocked the whole year,” he said. “She’s got a world of potential, upside. She’s way longer than anybody we have. And her feet, she’s got great feet. She’s quick. She uses her length. She just hasn’t really blossomed into wanting to use and knowing how to use it.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst