Roger Mason Jr. was the last Cavalier player selected in the NBA Draft. That was in 2002.
The NBA Draft rolls into Madison Square Garden tonight and fans from the Knicks, Bulls, Bobcats, and Raptors surely will be riveted with the proceedings. Heck, even fans of the Cavaliers – though likely not of the Virginia variety – will be watching with interest.
Why a yawn and a shrug from many of the Wahoo faithful? It’s simple really: UVa has been a non-factor in this event for a decade and that has translated into the Hoos’ non-factor status in the NCAA Tournament as well. The former is not changing tonight, but don’t fret. Thanks to solid recruiting and expected player development under his tutelage, Dave Leitao has the program on the right track to make Virginia relevant again, both to the NBA Draft and the NCAA Tournament.
The signs of changing times started to surface early in Leitao’s first season in Charlottesville. Players with little discernible development in prior years, quickly started to show added dimensions to their game. The names on the Cavaliers’ recruiting radar had higher rankings and more high-level schools in the mix. Long-time Virginia fans have been won over quickly and talks of yesteryear are more common, including talks of the Cavs’ last successful run in the NCAA Tournament. That was 1995 when the Hoos made the Elite Eight behind players like Cory Alexander and Junior Burrough.
There-in lies the story of Virginia basketball over the last decade. In the years and 10 NBA Drafts following the 1995 season, it has been a roller-coaster ride of inconsistency. Everything from lack of depth and talent to lack of player development has hindered a program that must compete year in and year out with the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Georgia Tech, and so on. UVa has made the NCAA Tournament field just twice in that time span, losing in the first round both times (1996-97 to Iowa and 2000-01 to Gonzaga).
During that period, just one – yes, one – player has been selected in the NBA Draft. It was Roger Mason Jr. in 2002, when he was a second-round pick of the Bulls at No. 31. There are only two rounds and teams started to draft more foreign and high school players during that period, you argue? Big deal, you say?
While the NBA Draft is not the only barometer to measure talent, I disagree, particularly when you compare Virginia to the rest of the ACC. In that same period of time – the 10 NBA Drafts since 1995 when Alexander went as the No. 29 pick and Burrough as the No. 33 pick – every single member of the non-expanded nine-team ACC has had more players drafted than the Cavaliers (see the accompanying chart at the bottom of this article).
Yes, that includes Clemson. Yes, that includes Florida State. And ditto right on down the line.
In total, it reads like this: ACC players drafted, 54. Virginia players drafted, 1. That disparity will increase tonight with the 11th draft after UVa’s presence in 1995.
Playing with that sort of talent gap is akin to entering Texas Hold ‘Em poker tournaments knowing that you will have nothing but non-face cards. Sure you can play and you might even take some big hands, but winning enough to progress deep into any tourneys is highly unlikely.
Developing top 125 talent like Eric Wallace will be a key to Dave Leitao’s success.
Fortunately for Wahoo fans, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. The reason, as mentioned above, is two-fold. 1. Dave Leitao and his staff are recruiting better talent. 2. The coaches are developing the players’ skills once they are in Charlottesville.
The first step is evident in recent commitment Eric Wallace and the current chase for Patrick Patterson, Ed Davis , and players of that caliber. Virginia is not a school that currently can land McDonald’s All-Americans and top 10 national recruits by the boat-load, but being in the hunt is important in order to be able to sign some here and there. Just as critical, however, is the Cavaliers’ presence with players that range just outside of All-American status, but within the top 100 to top 125 recruits in the country. If Leitao’s staff can consistently pick up players in that range, particularly on the high end, the Cavaliers’ overall talent level will improve. More face cards so to speak.
“There’s no doubt that Dave Leitao is upgrading the talent level in the Virginia basketball program. If you look at the recruiting results from last year, along with any early work done with the Class of 2007 (rising seniors), the only ACC teams doing better are Duke, North Carolina and Georgia Tech. After that, it’s probably Virginia and Wake Forest. That’s pretty good company,” said David Glenn, the ACC Sports Journal Editor. (Hear more tonight with Glenn on the Best Seat in the House at 6 p.m. on Charlottsville’s WINA AM 1070.)
Improving depth and competition in practice is one of the key components to the second step: player development. Leitao, who worked under Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun, is considered an excellent teacher of the game (many Calhoun protégés are) and a successful motivator as well. Both of those traits are necessary in the year-long, ongoing growth of basketball players and their skill set. Certainly, it has worked for the mentor – UConn is perennially involved in March Madness and three more Huskies could be top 15 NBA Draft picks tonight.
Leitao’s ability to teach and motivate pushed the Cavaliers to a NIT berth last season that was unexpected in the preseason. Players like J.R. Reynolds and Jason Cain had more tricks in their bags. Even Sean Singletary showed added consistency and confidence in his abilities as a sophomore. The team’s overall demeanor with things like defense and rebounding changed as well. If more talented players enter the fold and Leitao reaches similar patterns of improvement with those players, then Virginia’s on-court product should improve as well.
Of course, that should mean more NCAA Tournament berths, more consistent appearances after the first weekend, and more shots at contending for ACC titles. Do that and UVa will be relevant again on NBA Draft night. The Cavaliers – and not the Cleveland variety – can’t wait.
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