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    Donovan Clingan powering Connecticut as college basketball's 'most impactful player'

    By Paul Myerberg, USA TODAY,


    Dan Hurley relates the story of Donovan Clingan deciding to return for his sophomore season like this: Clingan walked into Hurley’s office one day after Connecticut returned to campus after winning the national championship last April , sat down, looked at his coach and said he wasn’t ready for the NBA.

    Let’s run it back, Hurley recalled Clingan saying.

    “There wasn't a meeting with the agent and a series of drama, you know,” Hurley said. “He is a special kid.”

    The 7-foot-2 center from Bristol, Connecticut, about an hour from campus, was coming off a highly promising but flawed freshman year. While an important piece of the Huskies’ championship, Clingan played just over 13 minutes per game, eighth on the team, and averaged 6.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.

    Nearly one year later, his decision to return has keyed the Huskies’ development into a bulldozing juggernaut while turning Clingan into one of the nation’s top big-man prospects and a potential lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

    “He’s grown up,” Hurley said. “He wasn’t ready last year, just as a man, or as a young man. He was a big kid last year that could not survive in the NBA world, in those locker rooms, which are not very nurturing. He needed this year of development and growth.”

    As Clingan has blossomed, so have the Huskies. It’s not a coincidence.
    Connecticut center Donovan Clingan (32) grabs the ball away from Illinois forward Ty Rodgers (20) during the East Regional championship game of the 2024 NCAA men's tournament at TD Garden. Winslow Townson, USA TODAY Sports

    A game-changing defender

    While he’s worked to develop a more well-rounded game, Clingan joined the program as a game-changing anchor of the Huskies’ defense. Even in limited action last season, his ability to influence activity near the basket helped push the defense from 57th nationally in scoring in 33rd in 2022-23.

    The No. 1 Huskies enter Saturday’s Final Four matchup against No. 4 Alabama (8:49 p.m. ET, TBS) ranked ninth in scoring defense after a lockdown run through the East Region. UConn gave up 53.5 points per game in routing No. 16 Stetson, No. 9 Northwestern, No. 5 San Diego State and No. 3 Illinois. Clingan had 14 rebounds and eight blocks against the Wildcats and then 10 rebounds and five blocks against Illinois, earning him East Region MVP honors.

    The defense runs through the sophomore. That he looms near the rim gives the Huskies’ backcourt the freedom to aggressively defend the perimeter; in the Elite Eight, his presence helped freshman Stephon Castle play chest-to-chest defense on All-America guard Terrence Shannon Jr., who had just eight points in the 77-52 final .

    Overall, Illinois scored just 15 points with Clingan on the floor, missing 22 of 25 attempts from two-point range and missing all 19 attempts on direct challenges, according to ESPN.

    “He’s so good, you have to keep up your level,” said junior Samson Johnson, Clingan’s backup.

    Increased stamina and improved footwork have helped keep Clingan on the floor, boosting his average to 22.1 minutes per game.

    “His skills have improved, his movement has improved and his maturity has improved,” Hurley said. “He’s continued to develop his skills and different aspects of his game.”

    College basketball’s ‘most impactful player’

    In terms of his influence on the Huskies’ quest to become the eighth program to win back-to-back national championships, Clingan’s impact is matched nationally only by 7-foot-4 Purdue senior Zach Edey. The No. 1 Boilermakers meet No. 11 North Carolina State (6:09 p.m. ET, TBS) in Saturday’s first national semifinal, setting up the possibility of a rarely seen big-man matchup on Monday night.

    According to College Basketball Reference, Clingan ranks second in the country, trailing Edey, in win shares per 40 minutes, average plus-minus and overall player efficiency rating. He ranks third in offensive plus-minus and defensive plus-minus, fifth in overall offensive rating and third again in overall defensive rating.

    “Donovan is the most impactful player in the country,” senior guard Hassan Diarra said. “When he’s doing what he’s doing, he’s hard to beat.”

    While he’s struggled to finish near the basket at times in the tournament – most notably during a sloppy performance in the paint against San Diego State – Clingan has developed a more consistent offensive game in his sophomore season. He’s shooting 64.3% from the field, eighth nationally and second in the Big East, while averaging 12.9 points per game as one of five UConn players in double figures.

    “We're competing for the best of the best right now, and we're trying to do special things,” Clingan said. “Really. I'm just trying to impact the game any way I can and help my team win.”

    Even in just two seasons, Clingan’s impact on a team angling for a place among the best in modern NCAA history has made him “one of the best players to ever put this uniform on,” Hurley said.

    “I grew up dreaming of playing for the University of Connecticut,” said Clingan. “So to be able to wear this jersey every single day and play for such a historic and special program and insert myself and my teammates inserting themselves into history, it's special.”

    Clingan’s NBA draft outlook

    His development as a sophomore has made Clingan a likely lottery pick in this year’s NBA draft.

    “Despite lacking a skill set or path for offensive upside, he can still provide value with his finishing, pressure on the glass and low-post game,” according to Bleacher Report , which has Clingan going fifth overall to the Portland Trail Blazers.

    There are still some question marks about how his game will translate to the NBA, especially on the offensive end. Clingan will also have to prove himself capable of handling a heavier load of activity to sway teams who might be wary of spending a high-value draft pick on a player accustomed to playing in roughly seven-minute chunks. But even if his offensive game lags, Clingan’s impact on defense assures him of finding a role on the next level.

    And his growth as a scorer as a sophomore speaks to Clingan’s improvement from one year to the next, underscoring the potential found in a player who may be only beginning to scratch the surface of a well-rounded game.

    Clingan’s growth “shows his work ethic,” Diarra said. “He’s just stayed locked in, stayed focused. And you can see how good he is now.”

    This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Donovan Clingan powering Connecticut as college basketball's 'most impactful player'

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