After the UConn men’s basketball team finished practice on Saturday, Dan Hurley and his staff arrived at the Basketball Hall of Fame’s Hoophall Classic event in Springfield to watch 2023 commits Stephon Castle and Jayden Ross.
The designated coaches’ section full, UConn’s staff, which arrived at halftime of Castle’s game and included associate head coach Kimani Young and Luke Murray, sat along the sideline, arms-length from the fans in the front row of the bleachers.
Naturally, Hurley was bombarded by young fans asking for selfies and autographs. He obliged.
But then the attention turned to the court, where Castle’s Newton team from Georgia attempted to claw its way back into the game against perennial powerhouse IMG Academy. Castle, a 6-foot-6 combo guard ranked No. 9 in the class by 247Sports, made his highlight two-handed slam late in the third quarter and finished the game with 15 points (6 of 20 from the field), nine rebounds, three assists and a block.
“He’s like a new-age guard – point guard skills, combo guard skills, guard four or five positions, can playmake, can score it. He’s shooting more 3s this year too which, with the consistent 3-point shooting, he’s a major problem,” Hurley said. “The guy has got just all the skills and he’s got great parents behind him that are pushing him and telling him the truth about things he’s got to get better at. He’s got old school parents and that helps a lot.”
Castle, a pass-first, drive-second point guard has been working on expanding his shooting range before practice, but once it begins the focus is on sharpening his vision and working on his defense.
Newton’s game schedule doesn’t typically interfere with UConn game days, so Castle has watched just about every game, envisioning himself within the current group as an additional scorer and playmaker who can guard full court.
“I’ve been thinking about (playing with the current team) a lot, they’ve been playing really good,” said Castle, who, as well as Ross, will attend UConn’s game on Sunday against St. John’s. “So hopefully they don’t all go to the NBA on me.”
Ross, a 6-7 wing who is another fifth of UConn’s incoming class that is ranked No. 4 in the country by 247Sports, lurked around the corner with a few teammates and his coach, John Buck, to watch the end of Castle’s game, and Castle stuck around to return the favor. Castle said the group, which replicated Michigan’s ‘Fab Five’ photoshoot on an official visit, talks weekly.
“I think we need a new (nickname),” Castle said, smiling. “Fab Five, that’s kind of a legendary name, I don’t know if we’re that good yet.”
Castle sat baseline in a UConn hoodie and watched with intrigue as Ross’ nationally ranked Long Island Lutheran team took on Oak Hill Academy in a heavyweight bout.
“It’s always nice to see my future teammates, I’ve talked to Stephon a few times before,” Ross said. “I’d say all of us coming in next year are pretty close already, so it’s just good to know that we have that connection.”
Castle’s parents, Quannette and Stacey, sat in the Long Island Lutheran family section behind the team’s bench proudly wearing their UConn apparel.
Ross, long and quick, flew around both ends of the court, playing the relentless, aggressive defense that Hurley and staff seek. “Make a play Jayden,” Young urged when Ross was within earshot near the sideline.
Sprinting down the court in the fourth quarter, his pointer finger toward the ceiling, Ross leaped above the rim and finished an alley-oop pass with a slam that sparked a collective “Ooo” from the UConn staff.
He finished the game with 11 points on 4 of 8 shooting from the field and 2 of 5 from beyond the arc, and added three rebounds, four assists and four steals.
“I try to be defense first, bring energy,” Ross said. “Today I didn’t really have my legs under me so I wasn’t my best defensively, but yeah I try to just stay in front of the ball. Normally I’m guarding one of the best players every game.”
“LuHi is a great situation for him,” Hurley said. “He’s developing a lot, he’s that type of ‘three-and-D’ player with huge upside with the length and shooting and the athleticism and positionless type of guy that is exactly what you’re looking for – the 6-7, 6-8 guys that can do a multitude of things.”
When Hurley comes to see players who’ve already signed, he looks for how hard the recruits are trying to win and how important that is to them. With Ross specifically, UConn’s coaching staff is looking to see physical development in terms of getting stronger and putting on weight.
“But really the main thing is we want them to watch a lot of our games and communicating with us about things they’re seeing,” Hurley said, “so that you know they understand the level and the expectations and they know more about our style.”