Zach Pereles: Evaluating UVA basketball through roughly one-third of ACC play

uva basketballColumn by Zach Pereles

It’s sometimes difficult to evaluate the individuals on elite teams, and Virginia is just that: elite.

Sure, the Cavaliers aren’t perfect. No team is. But the ‘Hoos were undefeated longer than anyone else this season and are a few possessions away from still having an unblemished record. It’s hard to complain about this team. Take, for example, the wins over Wake Forest and Notre Dame, where Virginia won by a combined 50 points. Fans certainly shouldn’t take this for granted. There have been plenty of years where Virginia was in Wake Forest’s or Notre Dame’s position.

Virginia is outscoring opponents by an average of over 21 points per game, third-best in the country behind Gonzaga and Duke. Tony Bennett consistently has his team prepared to beat all types of opponents, no matter how good or bad they are. Every conference game, save for the Duke contest, has been an absolute clinic.

So when you look at the evaluations of these players, take any points of weakness with a grain of salt. They’re one of the best  —  if not the best — groups of players in college basketball.

Stats are presented in this order:

(points per game/rebounds per game/assists per game) (FG%/3FG%/FT%)
Stat to know: (advanced stat)

NOTE: These stats are from conference play only. Virginia has played seven ACC games (about one-third when factoring in conference tournament play), so this sample size is small. All advanced stats are taken from KenPom, and specific shooting percentages are taken from Hoop Math.

Ty Jerome

(11.1/4.4/6.0) (40.0/37.5/66.7)
Stat to know: Seventh in KenPom’s Player of the Year standings

Jerome’s shooting numbers are a bit down across the board in ACC play, and that’s ok. Jerome carries a tremendous load offensively and is often the guy taking late-shot-clock shots, which is naturally going to bring his percentages down a bit. Because Jerome is such a big part of this offense, when he’s playing well, Virginia plays exceptionally well. His 14-point, 12-assist effort against Virginia Tech was one of the best games by a college guard this year, and it was arguably not only Jerome’s best game of the year but the best game of his career. His offensive rating of 152 against the Hokies was his highest in an ACC win since a game against lowly Pitt in his freshman year. Then he simply surpassed that number with another masterful game against Notre Dame.

Would it be nice to see Jerome shoot the ball better? Definitely. (Aside: The low free-throw shooting percentage is strange, though he’s only been to the stripe nine times.) But Jerome, overall, has played much better offensively than his shooting numbers indicate. He has the highest assist rate in the ACC, and because he is still a strong three-point shooter, an outstanding passer, a very good defender and on one of the best teams in the nation, he’s ranked seventh in KenPom’s Player of the Year race. While DeAndre Hunter is the team’s best individual/NBA talent and Kyle Guy is the best pure shooter, Jerome is the most valuable piece on the team. It’s hard to find a more natural fit at point guard for Bennett’s system.

Kyle Guy

(14.3/5.1/2.0) (48.6/46.7/87.5)
Key stat: 51.7 percent on two-point shots in ACC play

Guy’s quietly been excellent this conference season while also shooting the ball more often than ever before. Guy’s 127.4 offensive rating in conference action is far and away the best mark of his career, and a lot of that is due to the key stat I mentioned above: He’s been terrific inside the arc. Here’s how his career ACC numbers stack up:

‘16–’17: 36.0 percent
‘17-’18: 39.6 percent
‘18-’19: 46.2 percent

Guy will never be one to attack the basket a ton, but that is massive, massive improvement during his time in Charlottesville. Give both him and the coaching staff credit there. But that’s not the only area in which Guy has progressed significantly. He’s a terrific defensive rebounder for his size. Here’s how he’s progressed in that area in conference play:

‘16–’17: 9.3 defensive rebounding percentage
‘17-’18: 8.7 percent
‘18-’19: 14.7 percent

Another impressive aspect of Guy’s game this year is his ability to defend without fouling. He’s averaging just one foul per 40 minutes, best in the ACC. Overall, Guy is a large part of what makes the team so dangerous offensively, and the game against Notre Dame was a perfect example of that. Few players in the nation can shoot like he can. His quick release can render near-perfect defense helpless when he gets rolling.

DeAndre Hunter

(14.3/5.8/1.8) (51.7/46.2/75.0)
Key stat: 44.9 percent of shots taken at the rim

Just how good has Hunter been in conference play this year? He’s made more field goals than anyone else, made more free throws than anyone else and shot better from three than any player in the rotation not named Kyle Guy or Jay Huff. He’s scored in double digits in seven of the eight ACC games and has shot worse than 40 percent in just one. He was at his best against Virginia Tech and Duke  —  the two best teams UVA has played — and is the only player on the team who consistently gets to the foul line. His 27 free throws attempted are more than Jerome, Guy and Diakite combined.

Hunter’s abilities give Virginia offense hope when the blocker-mover offense is struggling to generate looks. That’s exactly what happened against Duke, and Hunter proved to be the only one who could score reliably in one-on-one settings. When Notre Dame went to a zone, Hunter dominated. On the season as a whole (no conference stats available), he’s getting 44.9 percent of his shots at the rim — Jerome only shoots 22.5 percent of his shots there, and Guy is at 15.0 per Hoop Math. A matchup nightmare for teams who try to go big (Duke) or small (Virginia Tech), Hunter is playing really well on both ends right now. He’s up to 10th in KenPom’s Player of the Year race.

Mamadi Diakite

(7.3/4.9/0) (50.0/25.0/75.0)
Key stat: 13.3 offensive rebounding percentage

Diakite has had a dip shooting the ball in conference play — 50 percent is a major drop off from non-conference play, where he shot 59.6 percent. But he does a few things really well, and that’s why he remains a key player: He’s among the league’s best offensive rebounders (13.3 offensive rebounding percentage is eight in the ACC) and rim protectors (10.1 block percentage is third in the ACC).

Essentially, when Diakite is among the most athletic players on the floor (See: Wake Forest, Notre Dame), he can be a really effective player and a difference-maker on both ends. When he’s not (see: Duke, Florida State, Maryland) he can have trouble. Still, Diakite’s play over the past week following the Duke game has been encouraging.

Jack Salt

(5.1/5.0/0.3) (62.5/0/54.5)
Key stat: Career-high 118.5 offensive rating (16th in conference)

No one will ever mistake Jack Salt for an offensive powerhouse. He has one move in the post  —  a left-handed hook — that works somewhat effective in very limited touches. Outside of that, he’s very much a non-factor offensively.

But wait! He is shooting 62.5 percent in league play, he best mark of his career, and producing a 118.5 offensive rating, the best of his four years of ACC play by a wide margin. Salt does a lot of things that don’t show up in the box score. You can’t measure a perfect hedge or a perfect contest at the rim, but those are the things Salt does extremely well. He remains a top-notch defender, and his slight progression offensively has been a plus.

Braxton Key

(9.7/6.2/1.7) (55.0/30.8/87.5)
Key stat: 26.9 defensive rebounding percentage
Here’s what I like about Key’s game offensively: It is built on the definition of efficiency. On this season as a whole, just 6.2 percent of Key’s shots have been two-point jumpers, typically the least efficient shot in basketball. Everything is either at the rim or from beyond the arc. On the other end, he is an outstanding defensive rebounder. In six ACC games, Key’s 26.9 defensive rebounding percentage is third in the league. He’s grabbing more than one in every four defensive rebounding opportunities when he’s on the court. That is a terrific number.

Where can Key improve? That one is easy: finishing at the rim. Key has taken 59.8 percent of his shots there this season — more than anyone not named Jack Salt or Jay Huff — but he’s shooting just 56.9 percent there, worse than everyone not named Kihei Clark.

Kihei Clark

(4.0/0.9/1.3) (33.3/40.0/100)
Key stat: Leads nation in frustrating opponents

Clark is like the (much) smaller version of Jack Salt. A lot of the things he does extraordinarily well — pressure the ball, recover and switch on defense, etc. — can’t be measured in numbers. Clark is struggling offensively (save his outburst at Notre Dame), and a broken wrist from earlier in the year could be a partial reason why. Here’s one thing to look forward to with Clark: the rematch against Duke with a healthy Tre Jones. Clark looked out of place trying to guard R.J. Barrett, and Duke capitalized there. Clark is more suited to match up against a typical point guard such as Jones. And Clark will only progress offensively; anything you get from him there is just an added bonus.

Jay Huff

(5.9/2.1/0.1) (69.6/57.1/71.4)
Key stat: Look at those shooting percentages!

We’re starting to see bits and pieces of the offensive magic that is Jay Huff. He shoots it from deep, he finishes lobs and he can put the ball on deck and take it to the basket. (Here’s some video on all of that.) There’s no way to debate his ability to change the game on the offensive end, and he’s shown significant improvement on defense as well. It will be interesting to see if Huff’s role expands going forward. For now, though, he serves an an immediate offensive boost whenever he enters the game.


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