Amida Brimah Will Be UConn’s X-Factor

Posted by mlemaire on November 5th, 2014

After all the attention that has been paid to Connecticut’s revamped and rebuilt backcourt, it may be the play of a Huskies’ big man that will determine exactly how good this year’s team can be. Everyone wants to know how Kevin Ollie plans to replace Shabazz Napier, and not without good reason. Napier was the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament last season and arguably the best player in the country as well. There may not be a player missing who left a larger void behind than the two-time champion. Now that he has graduated, everyone wants to know what is next. Is Ryan Boatright ready to step into the limelight? Can Rodney Purvis pick up where he left off as a freshman at North Carolina State? Is talented freshman Daniel Hamilton as good as advertised? These are important questions and the answers to them will have a big effect on whether UConn can be as good as it was last season. But the one question that may be more important than all of those is going mostly unasked — just how good is sophomore center Amida Brimah?

Now That Shabazz Napier Is Gone, Center Amida Brimah Will Play a Bigger Role (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Now That Shabazz Napier Is Gone, Center Amida Brimah Will Play a Bigger Role (AP Photo/Bill Wippert)

Not long ago, Brimah was an emerging high school center in Miami with eye-popping raw ability but very little basketball experience. Now, after one season of college basketball in which he played just 16 minutes per game, he is a member of the preseason All-AAC Second Team and expected to anchor the post for the defending national champions. Lofty preseason honors seem like a stretch when you consider that, as a freshman, Brimah averaged just 4.1 points and 3.0 rebounds per game while racking up fouls at a truly impressive rate (7.2 per 40 minutes). It’s just as possible that Brimah’s inclusion on that list is a bigger indictment of the quality of AAC big men than it is an endorsement of Brimah’s abilities. That argument will inevitably be settled on the court this season, but the answer may go a long way to determining what type of team UConn is this season.

Brimah was Ollie’s first official recruit as the head coach at UConn and his signing passed without much fanfare, primarily because those outside the scouting world knew very little about the unpolished seven-footer. Even so, it’s hard to ignore elite size and athleticism, so ESPN ranked him as the No. 22 center in the Class of 2013. The scouting report was standard fare for young athletic centers with precious little organized basketball experience — an offensive project who can run and jump and block shots with either hand. It probably didn’t matter to UConn how raw he was because the Huskies needed size so badly at the time that he was probably on their radar primarily because he was a tall person who was relatively familiar with a basketball.

Very little was expected of the wafer-thin Ghanian freshman right away, but that changed almost immediately. In his very first game of the season against Maryland, Brimah contributed five points, three rebounds, and five blocks in 15 minutes as the Huskies eked out a one-point win. The box score didn’t exactly shout “future superstar,” but it was hard to not notice the long-armed, bouncy big man sprinting down the floor for a dunk and trailing Terps’ guard Dez Wells so he could perfectly pin a layup attempt to the backboard. Throughout the regular season, Brimah not only established himself as a valuable member of the rotation but also as one of the most talented defensive players in the country. He finished the season with an average of 2.3 blocks per game, and ranked fifth in the country in block percentage, according to KenPom. He was effective enough that opponents’ offensive strategies adjusted with his mere presence on the floor. Foul trouble and offensive issues made his playing time somewhat inconsistent, but Ollie doesn’t have that choice this season — Brimah is going to play a lot of minutes and he is going to be asked to do much more than altering shots.

His first-year success and obvious potential has invited increased expectations. In addition to his presence on the preseason all-conference team, Brimah was also named a UConn co-captain by Ollie. He doesn’t have the luxury of a frontcourt running mate as multi-dimensional as DeAndre Daniels (who chose not to return to Storrs) this year, so Brimah needs to realize that he is the primary big man expected to anchor an elite defense, rebound much better, and most importantly, stay out of foul trouble. Other than Birimah, junior Phillip Nolan and sophomore Kentan Facey (who might blow away in a strong gust of wind) are the only other players taller than 6’7″ on this roster.

All of these projections are not only feasible but in fact possible because Brimah is a bit of a stud. He finished the 3.4-mile Husky Run in a gazelle-like 20 minutes and 22 seconds, a feat made only more improbable by the fact that the sophomore is nearly seven feet tall and weighs 230 pounds. Men his size generally cannot move like that, and it’s Brimah’s natural gift of athleticism that makes coaches think that he will improve rapidly. Word is already out that he has developed a semblance of a mid-range jump shot and has improved his touch around the rim; if he can create his own offense every once in a while, the Huskies will be that much more dangerous.

One indisputable fact is that Brimah will be one of the most feared shot-blockers in the entire country, but he is hardly a finished product on the defensive end of the floor. Last season he got himself in trouble because he liked to hunt highlight-reel blocks by trailing driving players too often, and his relatively skinny frame allowed stronger back-to-the-basket players to push him around. An offseason spent working to understand the nuances of defending the pick and roll and bulking up in the weight room should allow him to improve in both areas. But the biggest area for improvement – one that Brimah readily acknowledges – is staying out of foul trouble. Young shot-blockers often seem to think that they can block every shot but savvy opponents know how to exploit that tendency by getting to the free throw line.

Brimah Is Already A Premier Shot-Blocker, Now He Just Needs To Stop Fouling. (Bob Stowell/UConn)

Brimah Is Already A Premier Shot-Blocker, Now He Just Needs To Stop Fouling. (Bob Stowell/UConn)

Brimah is no exception. He made plenty of spectacular blocks last season, but he also got greedy and tried to make them in positions when it would have been smarter to just defend the shot by going straight up. The two sides of this are that the Huskies not only need to keep the other team off the charity stripe, they need Brimah on the floor playing defense as much as possible. His mere presence inside allows perimeter defenders to take more chances because they know Brimah will be there to clean up their mistakes. The AAC is thin in the frontcourt across the board this season, but the Huskies are even thinner than they were last season. Ollie may need to play some smaller lineups to utilize the team’s depth in the backcourt, but in those situations, Brimah’s role as a rim-protector is even more important. Needless to say, the Huskies will have an impossible task competing physically against teams like SMU or Memphis or even Cincinnati if Brimah is sitting next to his coach on the sideline.

The takeaway is this: While it will be worthwhile and interesting to keep a close eye on the progress of the new members of the Huskies’ backcourt, don’t forget to occasionally observe Brimah as he pins an opponent’s layup attempt to the backboard. It is his development and progress that may be more indicative of the Huskies’ success this year.

mlemaire (324 Posts)

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