UConn commit Samson Johnson has rocketed up national recruiting rankings - and here's why

Photo of David Borges
Samson Johnson, part of UConn's highly-touted recruiting class, will arrive on campus this week with the rest of the Huskies' freshman.

Samson Johnson, part of UConn’s highly-touted recruiting class, will arrive on campus this week with the rest of the Huskies’ freshman.

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like a hit song catching on in the high school hallways of America (or on Spotify), Samson Johnson is rocketing up the charts.

When Johnson signed his national letter of intent to attend UConn back in November, the 6-foot-11 forward was rated the No. 71 recruit in the nation by ESPN, behind fellow UConn commits Jordan Hawkins (No. 60) and Rahsool Diggins (No. 69).

Last week, when ESPN released its updated national rankings, Johnson found himself at No. 39 overall — ahead of both Diggins and Hawkins (No.’s 56 and 57, respectively) and now the Huskies’ top-rated incoming recruit, at least according to ESPN.

And though Johnson insists there’s no friendly competition among the future Husky teammates, he admits moving up the rankings means something.

“A little bit,” he said, “because I see it as if I’m ranked 40 today, and tomorrow I drop, that means I’m not working as hard as I can. But if I move up, that means there’s improvement I’ve made. That’s how I look at it.”

Johnson moved up in the 247Sports recruiting site’s composite rankings, as well, from No. 76 back in November to No. 63.

So what’s behind Johnson’s precipitous climb up the recruiting rankings? Plenty of things, not the least of which being COVID-19.

Wait, what?

“I think COVID helped him,” said Patrick School coach Chris Chavannes. Not because Johnson contracted the virus (there’s no evidence that he did), but because during the long COVID-related pause, he was able to work 1-on-1 with Chavannes or another coach, or often alone, to improve areas of his game.

“His work ethic is unbelievable,” Chavannes reported. “He makes strides every single day. People walk in the gym and see him, he catches your eye. Two days later, it’s like, ‘Oh my god, he’s made strides.’ Not too many kids can do that, but that’s him.”

Johnson modestly noted that he made improvements during the past season, in which Patrick School went 14-1.

“Some things I was not able to do last year, I was able to do this year,” he said. “I think that was the main reason (for the jump up the rankings).”

But his improvement goes beyond that. Chavannes recalled Johnson as a little-used sophomore on varsity who, in truth, probably couldn’t have even started for Patrick School’s junior varsity team. For the state playoffs at the end of the season, Chavannes brought up some freshman players from JV that wound up playing ahead of Johnson on varsity.

Johnson showed improvement as a junior as a role player on a stacked team led by Adama Sanogo, who just completed a terrific freshman season at UConn.

“Now,” Chavannes reported, “you see a guy that can just dominate a game on both ends of the floor, in a matter of seconds. He can shoot the 3 in transition, follow-up dunks, clean up the boards, block shots. He can literally just dominate a game.”

Jay David, who coached Johnson for three years with the NY Jayhawks AAU team, saw him play several times this winter.

“He’s shooting the ball a lot more,” David reported. “He could shoot it before, but I think people are starting to see his range. And the fact that he can guard multiple positions, at 6-11, switch out on guards, beat you to the spot, recover, because he’s long enough, uses his length. He’s becoming very savvy with all of that.”

Johnson had a bit of a coming-out party in late-October at a Slam16 all-star game at Gauchos Gym in the Bronx. He slammed home a couple of nifty alley-oop passes from Diggins and wound up with 12 points, eight rebounds and six blocks to notch Co-Most Valuable Players honors for the game.

“That game was loaded with talent,” David noted. “It was amazing to see him dominate the game on both ends of the floor.”

Added Johnson: “I was really proud. I didn’t know I was gonna get the MVP. That gave me a lot of confidence in myself, too.”

It was the type of performance that can help shoot a player up 32 spots in the national recruiting rankings.

“Rankings are hard,” David said. “I’m not one of those guys that are like, ‘These rankings guys don’t know what they’re doing.’ I think that’s a harsh way to behave. But rankings are really hard. You don’t get to see everyone all the time, or as many times as you’d like to.”

“So, when they were finally able to see him,” he continued, “I think they realized how good he was, and adjustments were made.”

And therein lies the second COVID-related reason why Johnson has made such a jump in the rankings.

‘HIS CEILING IS UNREAL’

Adam Finkelstein, one of ESPN’s chief national recruiting analysts, hadn’t seen Johnson play in person, at least indoors, since the end of his junior season. He saw him a few times this past fall, but in an outdoor setting, where physicality and other parts of the game don’t show out as much on the pavement.

This past New Year’s Day, Finkelstein watched a Patrick School workout live inside its gym.

“At that point, it was pretty clear he’d taken a pretty notable jump,” Finkelstein recalled. “Not only that, it was clear how much untapped potential he had.”

Finkelstein, Paul Biancardi and a few other members of a small committee updated ESPN’s national recruiting rankings last week. Keep in mind, ESPN ranks Johnson well ahead of other sites. Rivals.com, for instance, ranks Johnson No. 77 in the nation, well behind Diggins (45) and Hawkins (46). At 247Sports.com, Johnson ranks No. 68; Diggins is No. 52, Hawkins 54.

“We try to give consideration not just to what players are now,” Finkelstein said, “but what they can be down the road.”

Indeed, Johnson’s future is even brighter.

“He’s maturing,” David noted. “His body is physically growing out. He’s starting to really understand his level of play and attacking the game. I think that’s allowed him to excel in high school, because he’s taking the game a lot more seriously.”

“His ceiling,” Chavannes added, “is unreal.”

There is plenty of room for improvement, and everyone is in agreement about one aspect in particular.

“He’s gonna definitely have to get stronger,” David said of Johnson, who checks in at about 205 pounds.

Johnson agreed.

“Of course, definitely, definitely,” he said, “because the Big East is so physical. So, I’ve got to get ready.”

There’s more.

“I’d be a little concerned about how consistent he is,” Chavannes said. “He can have flurries.”

“I think most students in high school struggle with the fact that, in college, you have to play hard on every single possession,” David added. “You can’t be on the floor for a certain amount of time without impacting the game somehow, some way. You also have to learn that (freshmen) don’t play with the ball most of the time, either. I think that’s another thing that he’ll learn once he gets to college.”

Johnson is working out with the Northeast Basketball Club, a program in northern New Jersey that features some of the state’s top committed prospects and current collegiate players. In June, he’s expected to arrive in Storrs for summer classes — the top incoming recruit in UConn’s 2021 class, and rocketing up the charts.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com