It seems fairly safe to say that Virginia basketball fans have a lot of interest in the young talent on the team. The redshirt freshmen and sophomores represent, after all, one of the most talented recruiting classes in the program’s history. How those players develop and where they can take the program is the combination that work daydreams are made of.
Last season, Hoo fans got to see Mamadi Diakite, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome in action. Flashes of their abilities and potential did not disappoint. Some examples are easy to pick out. Diakite blocked four shots against Yale in a romp and hit a big shot late against Providence.. Guy ripped off 19, 17, and 20 points during the four-game winning streak late in the season. Jerome splashed on to the scene in a big way against Villanova.
UVA fans did not see Jay Huff and De’Andre Hunter in action, though. Both players redshirted. That’s led to serious offseason intrigue. That only heightened when three upperclassmen decided to transfer, leading to the theory that the redshirt freshman duo may have looked really good in practice all season long. That’s the ‘they could take some of my playing time’ line of thinking.
Huff could provide some offensive firepower from the frontcourt with a 6’11” frame and versatile skills. Hunter could provide the long and skilled perimeter forward that’s so often needed in matchups against strong teams. Throw in the fact that Virginia’s coaches have been dropping nuggets on the VAF circuit about their potential … and, well, fans want to see them play!
Fans also want answers to some questions. That’s why this is the perfect time for an “Ask The Sabre” article. There were so many good questions, though, that it morphed into multiple articles. Here’s the first one. Let’s get to another grouping where Huff is the focus!
What made Jack Salt so easy to block last year and how do you fix it? ~ wahoo, M.D.
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Wait, didn’t I just say this group of questions would be Huff inspired? Yes, I did. And no one gets more scrutiny in that regard than Jack Salt. He’s the most direct comparison and competition on the roster when it comes to height and the center position. Both players are listed at 6’11” and Salt is not the polished offensive type of player that we all saw with Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. More on the Salt-Huff storyline is in a question below.
But back to the question at hand first … what makes Salt easier to contest at the rim than some tall players? I think the answer here is related to Gill and Tobey. I think all three could be considered “gather and jump” players, meaning they need to fully gather their body momentum and strength before they jump. That translates to time. Time translates to a greater window of defensive recovery.
Gill and Tobey both improved their explosiveness – ability to get up faster and more powerfully – while with the Hoos. Gill also negated some of the need to gather himself with sheer physicality; he could create contact to knock a defender off balance and that bought him time to gather and go up while the opponent had to gather himself from the contact. Tobey featured some finesse skills to allow him to get shots off over other players thanks to being able to shoot over either shoulder with either hand. Later, he could just physically power the ball up more easily.
Salt will need to continue to add strength and flexibility to be able to follow a similar trajectory over the next two seasons.
Is Jay Huff working on a jump hook and, if not, why not? ~ TriplHoo
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: Yes. All Virginia post players work on this move. I can’t think of any off the top of my head that haven’t in the Tony Bennett era.
How do Ty Jerome and Jay Huff’s skills line up for a pick and roll and a pick and pop game? ~ WNCHoo63
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: See, that’s exactly what I meant by daydreaming in the intro! It’s easy to look at the diverse skills among this group of youngsters and think of all kinds of offensive possibilities. This example is one of my favorites.
I think an on-ball screen concept (or even a pin and pop off the ball – more on that momentarily) with Jerome and Huff could put strain on an opposing defense in a big way. Both feasibly could be mismatches at their own position already, Jerome as a 6’5” point guard and Huff as a 6’11” forward that can put the ball on the floor. Now add in the screen and the situation requires a lot to stop for the opponent.
Remember, on-ball screens create decisions for the defense and possible 2-on-1 situations for the offense. In it’s simplest form, an on-ball screen tries to stop the dribbler’s defender and to free up space for that dribbler. For the dribbler’s defender, there are three choices: fight through the screen to stay on the same path as the dribbler or go around (under) the screen to meet the dribbler on the other side of the screen or switch assignments with your teammate. For the screener’s defender, the three choices are defend the screener no matter what or help against the dribbler (UVA does this mostly with a hard hedge where the defender tries to block the path of the dribbler and force him away from the paint) or switch assignments with your teammate. There are obviously nuances within each choice within team strategy.
Any of the choices can make the defense vulnerable against players with the potential of Huff and Jerome. Huff can counter all three choices in more than one way. If his defender stays with him, he can face up and put the ball on the floor; if his defender, helps on the dribbler, he can create space out to shoot 3-pointers or dive down the lane; if the defenders switch, he can easily shoot over a shorter player or seal that player behind him on the dive into the paint.
Think of the trouble Wake Forest’s Dinos (Konstantinos) Mitoglou has caused at times against Virginia by setting an on-ball screen and then simply popping out into space to shoot 3-pointers. He even hits well-contested jumpers at times because he’s 6’11” with a high release point on his shot. Or, if you’re brave enough, think about the problems Michigan State’s Adreian Payne caused in the Sweet 16 slugfest a few years ago because he could screen and shoot or screen and get physical on touches in the paint. Huff has that potential.
UVA could also use him in an Evan Nolte way in that sense too. He can set up in the high post area, set that on-ball screen above the top of the key while the other players flatten out toward the baseline. This puts two defenders in space against two shooters and two ballhandlers due to Huff’s face-up ability. He can also set the off-the-ball baseline screen in UVA’s sides motion look and then pop all the way out to the corner for a 3-pointer when the cutter curls like Nolte did against Coastal Carolina in the NCAA Tournament for example.
As for Jerome, he showed last year that he can be dangerous with the ball in his hands in any situation. He controls his body angles, posture, and pace well enough to manipulate the defender’s response. Plus, he has range out to the NBA 3-point line with ease. That’s a tricky combination to defend.
Going back to the on-ball concept, if his defender follows him through the screen then Jerome is good enough to expose the screener’s defender if he helps out or he is strong and tall enough to keep the now trailing dribbler defender on his hip to go make a play. If his defender goes around (under) the screen, Jerome’s range and height make it very easy for him to just stop behind the screen and pull up for a clean 3-point look. If the defense switches assignments, he’s quick enough and good enough with the ball to beat that new defender off the dribble and with his size, he can still shoot over a taller defender.
UVA fans haven’t seen these concepts as much with Bennett so far in his tenure, but it’s important to remember that he’s only had two starting point guards for the most part in Jontel Evans and London Perrantes; Evans didn’t have the shooting range or consistency to do much other than drive off the screen, while Perrantes was a plus 3-point shooter but didn’t finish as well in the paint until his senior season. Plus, the screen-setting options haven’t been as versatile as Huff potentially is.
Going to hit you with the fastball … do you think Jay Huff will be ready to handle the defensive requirements of playing center well enough to be a starter at that spot sometime this year with Isaiah Wilkins at the four with the expectation that Jay will bring much more to the game offensively than Jack Salt? ~ sfb123
Sabre Editor Kris Wright: So with all of that said, there’s this million dollar question. Does that potential surpass Salt as a starter? And, I’ll add a piece, does it matter who starts in this scenario given that the lineups overall perform well? There are clues, if not answers, in the prologue.
First, let’s look at Gill and Tobey that were mentioned earlier. As sophomores, Tobey started 28 games and Gill started only 6. As juniors and seniors, their roles reversed with Gill starting in 67 of 71 games played and Tobey starting in 18.
Gill brought a physical presence that earned free throw attempts and provided an inside toughness offensively. Coming off a redshirt season, that wasn’t enough to start but he played plenty. Over the next two seasons as his defense improved, he still played plenty but started as well. Tobey, meanwhile, stayed steady in his minutes (between 15.7 and 18.1 over those three seasons) regardless of whether he started or not. He appeared to maximize his production by playing fewer minutes and in a lot of ways, the game started to change around him as well as teams spaced the floor for drivers.
I think there’s at least a mild parallel with this coming season when it comes to Huff and Salt. There is no question that Huff will bring more offensive versatility and likely more production on that end as well. Still, Salt is a rugged defensive presence that has really dialed in the rhythm and timing of the Pack-Line defense while also improving on staying vertical in contesting shots at the rim. It’s worth mentioning too that he’s started 43 games the past two seasons. Plus, he is one of the team’s best screeners and that helps some of these other weapons score. Overall, however, I suspect Salt maximizes his production in that same range of 15 to 20 minutes like Tobey.
Second, let’s look at the Kyle Guy example. Fans were having this ‘will he start’ debate about Guy at this point a year ago all the way into the fall. I even wrote about it: Starter or super sub? Ultimately, Guy started 6 games exactly like Gill did coming off that redshirt year. He fit well as a super sub, posting a 116.1 offensive rating per 100 possessions while also improving defensively throughout the season. He shot a strong 49.5% from 3-point range on the year too.
Where does all that lead? I’m guessing that Huff doesn’t start early in the year and maybe not much at all. That leaves plenty of room to grow into the program while playing impactful minutes. I pinned him at around 17 per game in the first part of this “Ask The Sabre” edition. That’s in line with Gill’s 19.8 minutes per game off the redshirt season as well as Guy’s 18.6 debut last season.
If he trumps all of that due to just how good he is offensively? Well, that’s the stuff daydreams are made of and it would be a very, very good thing for the Hoos.