Offseason Outlook: It’s Jay Huff’s time to shine for UVA Basketball
Times are a changin’ for the national champion Virginia Cavaliers. Tony Bennett’s squad is undergoing significant reconstruction following the early NBA Draft entries of Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Mamadi Diakite (who still has until May 29 to decide whether he will remain in or return). Marco Anthony, a seldom-used reserve, also is leaving the program via transfer, and Jack Salt has exhausted his eligibility. Class of 2019 recruits Casey Morsell, Kadin Shedrick and Justin McKoy are on their way in. That leaves Bennett and his staff having to fill at least three scholarships — four if Diakite stays in the draft — in the next few weeks. That process will certainly include at least one player eligible immediately as a graduate transfer or a Class of 2019 recruit. It could also include the addition of an undergraduate transfer, someone who won’t be able to contribute until next season. Virginia has been linked to players in all three categories.
Though the Cavaliers are currently shorthanded, the development over the next few months of the players currently on the projected 2019-2020 roster will be crucial to the team’s chance to rebuild following the most successful season in program history. This series examines what each individual needs to do this summer to make the most out of a semi-transitional year for what has become one of the nation’s best programs.
Jay Huff has been a tantalizing prospect ever since he arrived in 2016 but hasn’t consistently seen the minutes to put it all together. That’s about to change.
34 games; 9.4 mpg; 4.4 ppg on 60.4/45.2/66.7; 2.1 rpg; 0.5 tpg; 0.7 bpg
This one’s pretty simple: 7-foot-1 people who can jump, dunk, block and shoot threes don’t grow on trees. Jay Huff is one of them. The Durham, NC native didn’t really see the court consistently until one fateful afternoon at Clemson in early January. The Cavaliers’ offense was sluggish, and the pesky Tigers were hanging around. Huff came in with the Cavaliers up four and made a three-pointer on his second offensive possession. He’d later make he’d add four more points over the next stretch and exited with the Cavaliers up 18. He’d come back in and close out the game with a couple of thunderous dunks. He finished with 11 points and seven rebounds.
Huff shows a smooth outside shooting stroke, especially from the top of the key, and that makes him valuable in the pick and pop. But he is also a capable finisher at the rim, which allows him to work well in pick and roll situations. Huff presents a big target for his guards and is an athletic finisher. He shot an outstanding 80.8 percent at the rim, per Hoop-Math.
Defensively, Huff uses his length to impact shots at a high rate. His 10.5 block percentage was best on the team. His length and jumping ability make him a difficult obstacle to overcome near the basket.
While the advanced stats suggest Huff’s role should have been larger than it was, there’s a reason he played just 9.4 minutes per game and not at all in some big games (he was in for just seconds against Purdue and didn’t play against Auburn, for example). Huff struggled mightily at times in the pack line, especially when asked to hedge on-ball screens. He’s not especially quick laterally, so when he was forced to defend away from the basket, opponents took advantage more often than not. Huff averaged 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes, by far the highest number on the team. And Huff still needs to pack on the pounds to get stronger under the basket. Against teams both strong (Purdue) and quick (Auburn), Huff was stuck to the bench.
Offensively, Huff shot a paltry 15.4 percent on two-point jump shots. While he is terrific at the rim and has shown the ability to knock down shots from outside the arc, his game in between those areas has struggled. He also, at times, either tried to do too much or got a little careless with the ball. His 16.4 turnover rate was third-highest among the eight rotation players.
The offseason agenda
The biggest reason for optimism regarding Huff is he showed flashes of brilliance several times throughout the year, and this offseason should be his first full, healthy one (he missed much of last year’s with a torn labrum). He needs to convert that into continuing to get stronger in his upper body so he can continue to improve as an individual defender in the post. Huff also will need to get quicker laterally so he can avoid fouling and can be more effective defending in space.
Huff can also work on his post game. As good as he was at the rim, he was equally as bad on two-point jumpers. Of Huff’s 58 made shots this year, 45 came off of assists. He can improve his one-on-one scoring ability drastically this offseason by expanding his repertoire of moves once he catches the ball. Developing a face-up jumper would be the biggest item on that list, but learning to attack off one or two dribbles would be a major plus, too.
Finally, Huff needs to continue to improve his conditioning. He’s in line to blow away his previous career highs in minutes, and he’ll have to be ready for an increased workload on both ends. There’s no better time to work on that than in the offseason.
Huff is poised to play a big role this season. Virginia’s strength, especially offensively, looks to be on the interior, assuming Diakite returns. That’s a departure from recent seasons. The Cavaliers don’t have any proven scoring threats on the outside and may, as a result, play two bigs together. There were times last year when Key was Virginia’s tallest player on the floor. There will likely be times this upcoming season he is the third-tallest.
There’s ample room for improvement for Huff on both ends of the court. He showed glimpses of his unusual and exciting skill set during the championship campaign. Now, he’ll look to turn those glimpses into consistent production on a team that could go as he goes.
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Story by Zach Pereles