Why talk with UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma has Nika Muhl thinking about offense

Photo of Mike Anthony

WEST HARTFORD — Nika Muhl’s success as a player has been built on a certain defensive identity, and she will continue to operate as a ferocious hyena without the ball for the UConn women’s basketball team.

That’s who Muhl is, a smaller version of her favorite player, Dennis Rodman. And that’s what she does, harass and scrap her way through games.

But with her college career half over, and with her coach expressing the need for a little more in other areas, Muhl is spending the summer trying to refine the offensive part of her game. She’s trying to place herself in the middle of the stat sheet in a lineup of more gifted natural scorers, which means placing herself at the heart of good ideas.

In short, Muhl doesn’t need to bother much with barrages of 3-pointers. She needs to get more comfortable finishing at the basket and making consistent pull-up jumpers, just enough to keep defenses honest and support the likes of Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd.

That is what Geno Auriemma expressed to Muhl after the season, and she has made embracing the “non-glamorous” offensive parts of the game a priority.

“I feel like, when you hear scoring, that’s what I was always thinking about: go big or go home,” Muhl said this week at Auriemma’s charity golf event. “That’s not always the way it should work, and I’ve talked to him a lot about that. He gave me a different picture on it, a different perspective on it. So I’ve definitely been thinking about it a little different since then.”

Muhl, a guard from Croatia, was the Big East defensive player of the year last season as a sophomore. She averaged 2.2 steals, third in the conference, and stood out for her on-the-ball and open-court defense.

She is a tornado on the court. She doesn’t have to make it rain. She just has to convert enough baskets from the space she creates off the dribble. That stop-and-pop and those drives need to result in more points.

“I’ve definitely been working on my pull-up,” Muhl said. “Overall, my scoring game, I’ve been working on it a lot. I think that’s what I’m lacking. My role is still going to be my role. Nothing is going to change. If I can get those additional things in, that would be great. But if I still want get my teammates the ball, I think that’s the best thing to do here, with all these great scorers.”

Muhl averaged 3.8 points last season, ninth on the team. She shot 43.1 percent from the field, 34.2 on 3-pointers. Her goal as a junior is to be a more consistent contributor by simplifying what she tries to do on offense.

“The coaches have been really keying on that,” Bueckers said. “A lot of that is just footwork in the paint, jump-stopping, using a pump fake, using all of our footwork and pivots, and just making sure we’re making the game simple on us. It’s easy to shoot outside shots and 3s. You can get those any possession. Any time you want, really. So they just want us to be able to see our options and get the easiest looks.

“Obviously Nika has done a really good job on that and (assistant coach Morgan Valley) is really hard on all of the guards for that. You can tell it’s starting to work. You can see the footwork and all of the patience coming to fruition.”

Muhl played 33 games last season, starting 19, fitting right into the sometimes-available, sometimes-not theme of the season. She missed just three games last season with a foot injury, but was hindered even when available.

“I’m paying much more attention,” Muhl said. “Before, I would always just play (through pain), but it’s not fun being out for a month and a half while my team is playing. I feel like I’ve got to be smarter when it comes to that — when something hurts, say it. So I’ve been working on that, limiting myself as much as I can. But, also, we have to work.”

Muhl will return home to Zagreb next week and spend the remainder of the summer in Croatia. She has covered a lot of ground in Connecticut this offseason. While Muhl missed an outing to New York to catch up with former teammate Evina Westbrook, she did make it to a game between the Seattle Storm and Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, the day after Sue Bird announced this would be her final season in the WNBA.

“I never really followed UConn and American basketball or American sports,” Muhl said. “I was more into European sports. But once I committed to UConn, I had to watch all the games. Yes, I became a big Sue Bird fan. I think she’s such a great inspiration and such a great player. On and off the court, the things she’s done, the way she uses her platform is amazing.”

Muhl had spent time with Bird before.

“She’s really engaged with the program still,” Muhl said. “It’s amazing to see all the alumni engaged with the program after all these years. That’s something we want to do too, be around all the time.”

UConn players spanning 30 years — from Jamelle Elliott to Ayanna Patterson — gathered for a picture after the game with Bird at the center.

“It was amazing, especially after the game, seeing all of us together, just like we’re all on the same team,” Muhl said. “I love the bond that alumni share with current players and the coaches still. It just speaks on how great this program is and how much a sense of family there is.”

Muhl has several tattoos on her left hand and wrist — of both her grandmothers’ writing in Croatian, another recognizing her parents, and one in honor of her younger sister — “Baby M,” or Hana Muhl, who will be a freshman next season at Ball State.

“It’s a super personal hand,” she said.

Muhl’s plans for the coming months include “martinis on the beach.” She was last home around Christmastime, but only for a few days. She is one of four international players on the Huskies, with Dorka Juhasz (Hungary), Lou Lopez Senechal (France) and Aaliyah Edwards (Canada).

“There’s a lot of European flavor on the team, a little Canadian, very diverse,” she said. “We share a lot of different cultures, languages. People are learning new languages, which is really fun.”

Muhl is learning a slightly different approach to offense. She wants to be somewhere between deferring to others and taking too many outside shots.

“It’s a process, obviously,” she said. “I’m just trying to get my confidence in my shot and trying to understand I can expand my role a little bit. Obviously, I have such great scorers around me. They’re all such good scorers, I just want to get them the ball. But I understand what (Auriemma) is talking about and I hope I can affect the game that way, too.”

mike.anthony@hearstmediact.com; @ManthonyHearst