Saturday, November 16, 2013

Is Amida Brimah the Next in UConn's Long Line of Great Shot-Blockers?

A lot of talk about and with Amida Brimah at practice Saturday, after UConn prepared for Sunday's 2K Sports Classic with Boston University. Kid's off to a great start, with 14 blocks in his first three collegiate games. The Huskies were 55th in the nation in blocked shots last year. They're fifth early in this season, thanks largely to the 7-footer from Ghana via Miami.

Here's a story I wrote about Brimah shortly after he committed to UConn last February, chronicling his path from the soccer fields of Ghana to the hardwood of the U.S.

Asked Brimah today if he knew about UConn's legacy of shot-blockers (Emeka Okafor, Hilton Armstrong, Hasheem Thabeet, etc.) before coming to America. Not even close. In fact, the only basketball player he knew about while growing up was Michael Jordan.

Brimah went up against Thabeet this summer during pick-up games at Gampel. He said he played well against him -- didn't block any of his shots, but didn't get blocked, either -- and marveled at just how big and strong Thabeet was.

Thabeet also gave Brimah a bit of advice.

“He told me, when I was playing against him, even though he was bigger than me, I was playing hard, and he just gave me the advice to keep playing hard and stuff," Brimah said.

It's natural to compare Brimah and Thabeet. Both are 7-footers from Africa who were converted soccer players relatively new to basketball when they arrived at UConn. A.J. Price noticed the similarities during the Greater Hartford Pro-Am this summer.

"You hate to compare somebody to somebody, but that's the first thing you see," Price said. "I watched Hasheem be the same way when he first came here, not really knowing how to use his body, know how big he is. (Brimah) has the same problems right now, but he has a good basketball IQ, which is unteachable."

I asked Jim Calhoun if Brimah was ahead of where Thabeet was as a freshman, and he quickly answered, "No." But he also pointed out that Brimah is ahead of where Thabeet was offensively.

Kevin Ollie was still in the NBA when Thabeet arrived at UConn as a freshman.

“I know Hasheem was blocking shots and was amazing," Ollie said. "They used to have Hasheem in the sand pits, working on his hands and things like that so he could probably catch a little bit better. But it would be unfair for me to compare him, because he’s going to be his own player, anyway. He’s not going to be Hasheem Thabeet, he’s going to be Amida.”

Shabazz Napier recalls when Brimah committed to the Huskies, nobody knew much about him.

“I think we looked, but he didn’t have a lot of highlights on YouTube. He had one where he was just blocking little kids’ shots, so we were like, that’s one thing he knows how to do well, but we didn’t expect much. We expected a helping hand, but he’s been doing so much for this team.”

Napier was impressed by what he saw from Brimah this summer, however.

“He didn’t whine about getting hit down in the post, he blocked a lot of shots in pick-ups. I saw a lot, but you don’t know what was going to happen during the game atmosphere. You didn’t know if he was going to play well against Maryland, with that big atmosphere. That’s kind of a shock to a lot of freshmen coming in.”

“It’s rare, but when you have it, it’s spectacular … We’re just happy he’s on our team.”

*** No official word on letters-of-intent from Daniel Hamilton, Rakim Lubin and Sam Cassell, Jr., though it appears UConn is waiting to receive all three (or two, or however it may work out) before making an announcement.

But we'll reiterate: the Huskies are not worried about Hamilton backing off his commitment, as has been speculated.

*** Napier knows UConn can't keep shooting 54 percent form 3-point land forever. When the shots aren't falling at some point, he'll be ready to step up.

"That’s when I’ve got to be more aggressive," he said. "I haven’t taken a lot of shots, just because my teammates are making a ton of shots. That’s good for us. As long as I put myself in the right position to get my teammates open, they’re going to knock it down. Niels is on a crazy streak shooting … I don’t expect him to make his next eight in a row again. But he’s a great shooter, guys are getting it to the right spots, Omar’s getting to the right spots. Once that point in time comes when a lot of guys aren’t hitting shots, then I’ve got to be more aggressive.”

*** UConn is in the midst of a stretch of six games in 14 days.

“It’s a good grind, the grind we like. It’s how it’s going to be in the tournament in Memphis, then we’ve got to come back and play in the march to the Final Four. I like this kind of grind. We’ve got to understand that it’s part of basketball, every team is going to go through it. Even in conference play, you’re going to be in a grind and a bind when we get into January and February. This is going to be a great tune-up for us.”

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