Sam Cassell Jr. showing early promise for UConn
HARTFORD – Ninety minutes prior to the UConn men’s final exhibition game, Sam Cassell Jr. was singing along to the music played over the XL Center sound system and draining practice jumper after practice jumper with ease.
Come game time, the Huskies’ 6-foot-4 newcomer looked as calm, collected and confident as he did in warm-ups, coming off the bench and sinking seven of 11 shots in recording a game-high 18 points in a 68-59 victory over Assumption.
“My whole life, I’ve just practiced shooting the ball,” said Cassell Jr., technically a redshirt sophomore after playing at Chipola College in Florida last season. “Like my father and coaches have always told me, you can’t be a point guard if you don’t shoot. You will be easy to guard you if you don’t. Teams will go under screens and play off of you. If you do (shoot), it will open lanes.”
Given his background, it’s no surprise to see why he has so much belief in himself. His father, Sam Cassell Sr., demonstrated that same unique personality during his 15-year career, which included three championships, two with the Houston Rockets and the other as a member of the Boston Celtics.
Cassell Jr. was born on May 12, 1992. When he was two, his father, a confident and energetic rookie with the Rockets, stepped into the limelight during a tumultuous time in the sports world.
Just five days prior to O.J. Simpson’s infamous Ford Bronco chase, the rookie scored seven points in the final 32.6 seconds of Game 3 of the 1994 NBA Finals, lifting the Rockets to a crucial 93-89 win over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Houston would eventually win in seven games.
While at Florida State, Cassell, now an assistant coach under Doc Rivers with the Clippers, led the Seminoles to a win over the Huskies at Gampel Pavilion in 1993.
“Watching him was a main focus of mine, seeing how he picked his spots and how he scored,” said Cassell Jr., who showed a soft shooting touch Sunday with four three-pointers in seven tries. “It got him 15 years (in the league). Hopefully, it can pay off for me, too.”
UConn is going to need a lift from Cassell Jr. this season with the Huskies’ previous confident-no-matter-what guard, Shabazz Napier, now playing for the Miami Heat.
“He’s going to be huge for us,” UConn senior captain Ryan Boatright said. “I can get in the lane at will, so teams are going to crash all the time. I’m going to be able to find all of those kick-outs and, if he keeps knocking those shots down, he’s going to make the game easier for me and make us a better team.”
UConn coach Kevin Ollie is certainly pleased with Cassell Jr.’s preseason production, which included 17 points against Southern Connecticut on Tuesday.
“Sam is shooting very, very well, and very efficient,” Ollie said. “He has the ultimate confidence. He talks to his teammates, and is engaged on and off the court. He’s the type of player we want at the University of Connecticut.”
Ollie, whose team opens the season Friday against Bryant, does see one part of Cassell Jr.’s game that can use some work.
“He needs to step up on defense and that’s how I can get him more minutes,” Ollie said. “Other than that, he’s been a great spark. With the way he’s been playing, he could be in a starting role soon.”
Cassell Jr. is among three important additions to a Husky team to looking to repeat as national champions, along with NC State transfer guard Rodney Purvis, multifaceted forward Daniel Hamilton (12 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, two blocks in a starting role on Sunday), and big man Rakim Lubin.
He is looking forward to when the team starts to gel.
“(The first two exhibition games) have been the first time we’ve played against other teams together,” Cassell Jr. said. “We knew we’d start slow, but after a while, we’re going to get a lot better and be a real good team.”
If the Huskies are to be, Cassell Jr. will be a big reason why.