After winning a national title last year, many expected the Connecticut Huskies to be right back in the mix this season. Some of that had to do with the fact that Dan Hurley’s team returned some highly productive members of last year’s team — like Tristen Newton, Donovan Clingan and Alex Karaban. But the Huskies also brought in one of the nation’s most talented freshmen in Stephon Castle, a 6-foot-6 lead guard that was ranked 12th in the 2023 ESPN 100. Castle is currently a key contributor for a UConn squad that is a top-five team in KenPom’s efficiency rankings. The 19-year-old is currently averaging 10.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals in 25.9 minutes this season, and he looks like a surefire lottery pick in the 2024 NBA Draft.
Castle is an interesting player to evaluate, as his biggest strength is his defense. That’s quite rare for a guard, but this is a game-changing defender at the point of the attack. Castle doesn’t have much length — his wingspan is a reported 6-foot-7 — and he isn’t exactly a next-level athlete. But Castle still has the size to defend point guards all the way up to small forwards, and he does it exceptionally well. Castle is extremely feisty on the ball, where he gets right up on his man and makes it impossible for them to dribble.
Castle is also tremendous when it comes to off-ball defense, capable of jumping lanes for steals and even coming up with some blocked shots. He shares some similarities with guys like Jalen Suggs and Marcus Smart, which is the ultimate compliment for a defensive-minded guard. A good 95 percent of NBA players hang their hats on their ability to impact games offensively. Castle will be able to do that, but he’s one of the few players that wants to dig in and work tirelessly for stops.
Offensively, what makes Castle special is his ability to make plays off the dribble. He’s capable of doing that for himself and others. In fact, Castle has an assist rate of 24.1 this year. That’s a pretty high number for a player his size, and it’s rather significant when you combine it with his steal rate of 3.0 and Defensive Box Plus Minus of 3.1. Suggs and Smart also reached all three of those marks in their freshman seasons, and the group of NBA players that did that as freshmen also includes guys like Anthony Black, Cason Wallace, Scottie Barnes, De’Anthony Melton and Alex Caruso. That’s great company.
Castle has a nice handle for a player with his size, strength and first-step burst. He gets downhill and can be really tough to stop with a full head of steam. From there, Castle has the bounce required to finish above the rim, or utilize a decent layup package. He’s also a really accurate lob thrower, and all of that makes him a good pick-and-roll ball handler. Castle should thrive in those actions in the NBA, especially with increased spacing around him. Hurley runs some of the most advanced sets in college basketball, so he definitely helps Castle maximize his skill set. But Castle is also just a naturally gifted on-ball creator, and his improvisation skills are superb.
Castle is also a player that should thrive in transition in the NBA. And the fact he is such a good defender will provide him with all sorts of opportunities to get out on the break.
The only thing holding Castle back right now is his shaky jumper. He’s shooting 32.3 percent from three this season, and his 71.2 percent free throw shooting doesn’t do much to quell his shortcomings as a jump shooter. His mechanics honestly don’t look all that bad, but he has had some ugly misses on great looks this year. It simply looks like he’s lacking in confidence in a big way. But the foundation of his shot suggests there is some room for improvement. And if he ever does become a respectable jump shooter, he has legitimate All-Star potential.
We have seen quite a few guards get picked in the lottery without having proven they can consistently hit shots. Some are just too good at other things to justify them sliding. Castle falls in that category, and the fact he’s part of a weak draft class only helps. Considering the lack of options, plenty of NBA teams will be able to talk themselves into an elite point-of-attack defender that also has some offensive juice. That alone is a player that can play big minutes in today’s NBA. But there are likely quite a few teams that will feel they can fix Castle’s jumper — especially considering he’s more streaky than downright awful. If they’re successful, they just might have a guard that can be part of a legitimate championship core.