After Winning Back-to-Back Titles at UConn, Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle are Ready to Make Waves in the NBA

Barely an hour after the NBA draft lottery results were revealed to the world live from Chicago, and just a few blocks away from where the annual ceremony took place, Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle both arrive on set for our cover shoot at the most picturesque indoor gym in all of America. Located at 167 Green in the Fulton Market District, the 17th floor hardwood court, referred to as Town Hall, features stunning panoramic skyline views of Chi Town from just about every side you turn thanks to its floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

The view provides a calmness effect after the ruckus from the previous hour, when both players found out the short list of teams that are most likely to end up drafting them in June. It’s been quite the journey for this duo—one that will have them stamped in college hoops history for eternity.

SLAM 250 featuring Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle is available now.

Clingan, a 7-2 center, won back-to-back national titles in his only two seasons at UConn. He averaged 13 points, 7.4 boards and 2.5 blocks per game this past season, earning him a spot on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award Midseason Watch List, the 2024 NCAA Final Four All-Tournament Team and a ’24 NCAA East Region Most Outstanding Player nod.

Meanwhile, Castle, a 6-6 freshman wing who averaged 11.1 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists while becoming a top perimeter defender for the Huskies, made his own imprint in the history books. He set a new Big East record with 11 Freshman Conference Player of the Week honors, surpassing Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. He was also the first Huskie since Rudy Gay in 2005 to win Big East Freshman Player of the Year.

We sat down with both projected top-10 picks after our shoot to discuss their historic run, their chemistry and their NBA outlook, among many other topics.

SLAM: It’s been a few weeks since you guys cut down the nets and made history, going back-to-back as national champs. Now that you’ve had some time to process it all, how do you put into words the accomplishment?   

Donovan Clingan: To win back-to-back, you know, for me personally, was something really special just because there’s not too many people that could go around saying that they’ve done something that special. We did it in such a historic program that has a lot of history, and it’s a place where it’s hard to make history. But to go out there and do some of the most historic things that have happened in the program was something really special. I think UConn is a special place that will always be home to me. I know Steph will say the same thing. I’m just super, super blessed to be able to have accomplished what I’ve accomplished, and I’ll be forever grateful for my two years at UConn.

Stephon Castle: I mean, honestly, it really still doesn’t even feel real to me. I only won once, I can only imagine what it feels like for DC. Just the whole experience was super, super fun.

It really was a blessing just to be out there with the great group that we had. We had a real special group. Like [DC] said, it’s definitely a second home for me.

SLAM: At what specific point in the season do you remember feeling like y’all had a really good chance to run it all back?

DC: I feel like when we went on our trip to Europe [UConn played in Monte Carlo and Spain last summer—Ed.], we saw the potential we had. To be honest, I feel like I didn’t know if a national title was a possibility again, just because I realized how hard it was the year before, and we were going to have a big target on our back, but when we got back from Europe, we had like two weeks off and we came back in for the start of practice in the regular season. And you could just tell the energy and the will of everyone on the team, everyone on the staff, everyone in the building, really, just wanted to go out there and win every game, every night.

SC: Early in the season, I didn’t know how good we were. I mean, we always talked about going back-to-back and chasing a national championship, but I feel like every school talks about going for a national championship. I feel like it was about the midpoint of the season, probably like where the Big East [season] really kicked off, when I kinda knew, like, we really had a chance at winning the whole thing over again.

SLAM: Donovan, your freshman season, you only averaged 13 minutes per game but played a major role in the rotation on the 2023 national championship team. What did you learn from that group that you were then able to apply to this past season, when you became a major focal point?

DC: Just realizing everything I had to give every single day. I played [in practice] against the most dominant big in the country in Adama [Sanogo], who went into practice and into workouts every single day knowing that he’s gonna get better and knowing that the team was gonna need him that year to make a big jump [and] lead us to where we wanted to go. I feel like that was something for me, coming into the season—I have to make a big jump. I have to be a leader. I have to dominate the floor on the offensive and defensive end. I just gotta give my all, day in and day out, just to make sure that this team wins.

SLAM: Steph, you got thrown right into the fire despite being a freshman—you were a starter from the very first game, and only came off the bench a few times due to an early season injury. What was the early challenge like for you?

SC: I mean, it was definitely hard at first. Definitely something that you have to really adjust to and really just embrace. But I feel like my teammates, they had a lot of confidence in me this year and they instilled a lot of confidence in myself. So, just going out there, just trusting my work that I put in and just knowing that the coaches believe in what I do.

SLAM: Donovan, you decided to return to college without even testing the NBA waters in 2023. A reporter afterward said that NBA scouts believed you could have been selected anywhere between 25 and 40 in the draft that year. Why did you think it was important to return?

DC: I knew I had to mature as a person, as a player. I had to expand my game in many ways. I only played 13 minutes a game last year. I wanted to go out there and be a starter, try to lead the team to another national title and I just wanted to go play for UConn. I love Coach [Dan] Hurley, I love that staff, I love the school, and I just wanted to try to be part of something really special and to be able to say that I did that means a lot to me.

SLAM: Steph, do you remember the moment when you realized that despite being a freshman who’s starting for the reigning national champs, you had what it took to hold your own at an elite level?

SC: I don’t remember the exact practice but I know I was frying though, that’s the only thing I do remember. I think I was on the second team at the time, too. So, that definitely gave me a lot of confidence going into it, especially coming back from an injury.

SLAM: Are there parts of your game that you didn’t get a chance to showcase in college because the team didn’t need you to, that you’re now excited to be able to show at the next level?

DC: Yeah, to be able to step out, shoot the three ball a little more, play off the dribble, really just working that midrange game and setting the pick-and-pops and just roll to the rim, lobs. You know, Coach Hurley had a great game plan for this team. He always put us in the best position possible and my team didn’t need me to shoot threes to win games. That’s something I didn’t have to do. [But] that’s something I’m gonna have to do to take my game to the next level and succeed at the highest level.

SC: I mean, probably just being on the ball more, taking more shots, like off the dribble and stuff like that. I feel like Coach had a great scheme for us and he asked specifically what he needed for us to win a championship. And I thought we got it done. But if there was anything, I’ll say shooting off the dribble, playmaking a little more on the ball and, you know, stuff like that.

SLAM: Steph, you set the Big East record for most Conference Freshman of the Week honors, and in doing so, you surpassed Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. What did that historic feat mean to you?

SC: It meant a lot, just to put my name next to those high-level type of guys. You know, I feel like that meant a lot for my career and what my legacy was at UConn for that short time. But a lot of that credit goes to my teammates and my coaches. I feel like they put me in a great position to be successful in those games. I just had to go out there and just be myself. I feel like a lot of credit goes to them.

SLAM: You also became the first UConn men’s player since Rudy Gay in 2005 to win Big East Freshman of the Year.

SC: I wouldn’t say it was regularly just a goal for me, but it’s definitely in the back of your head as you’re playing. It’s something that you kind of shoot for. So, like DC said, it’s a pretty historic school. There’s been a lot of great names to come out of there, so just to have my name beside those guys and instilled in that history forever, it’s super special to me.

SLAM: Donovan, do you have an off-the-court story of Stephon that you’d say perfectly reflects his personality when the cameras aren’t rolling?

DC: I mean, Steph loves to nap. He loves to sleep. When we were on the way back from Europe, I remember before we left out of Barcelona—like, I don’t think everyone was even on the plane yet—he was already asleep, and he didn’t wake up until the lights turned on when we landed in Boston. It was like an eight-hour flight, and he did not wake up once. Not even to use the bathroom. Nothing. And I was just like, That’s Steph! Like, when he’s sleeping, he’s sleeping. But when he’s up, he’s just hooping. But he just loves to nap. Every time I see him, he’s napping. On the bus, on the plane—he’s napping.

SLAM: What about you, Steph—any good Donovan stories?

SC: So, it’s one day in practice—I think [Donovan], he wasn’t having the best practice. He was kind of mad at himself. I want to say he kicked something or he punched the backboard or it was something crazy like that, but he hurt himself. And we had a game coming up. I mean, we always called him “Cling Kong,” so I feel like that was one of his moments. He ripped his shirt in practice, punched the backboard, he started screaming. He was going crazy.

DC: I want to win [shrugs with a smile].

SC: It’s practice, though [laughs].

DC: It’s OK, I don’t lose.

SC: I don’t remember the whole story. I know you can tell the story.

DC: I mean, I get upset sometimes with how I’m playing, and if I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do on the floor, I take it out on myself. And I put a lot of pressure on myself. I do just get frustrated at times—

SC: [interrupting Donovan] You ever seen somebody punch the backboard without jumping?

DC: I just want to win [laughs].

SLAM: When people talk about the 2023-2024 UConn Men’s team 10, 20 years from now, what do you hope they say in terms of your legacy?

SC: I think we might be up there as one of the best college basketball teams ever, because if you think about it, our only games we lost were away games, and one of them, we didn’t even have our full team. [Actually], two of them—one game I was hurt and then one game [DC] got hurt.

DC: Just to be remembered as one of, if not the best college basketball team ever. There was a bunch of guys who gave it their all every single day for 11 months of the year. It’s a special group. We were a brotherhood. Everyone loved each other, and that’s going to be a special team. There’s no one that’s going to be left out forever. We’re all going to stay in touch, we’re all gonna be brothers for life, and that’s just something that’s really important to me.

Portraits by Joe Pinchin. Action photos via Getty Images.

The post After Winning Back-to-Back Titles at UConn, Donovan Clingan and Stephon Castle are Ready to Make Waves in the NBA appeared first on SLAM.

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