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2017-18 Virginia Basketball Player Profiles: Jack Salt ready for third year jump

UVA’s big man in position to have huge third year.

NCAA Basketball: St. Francis-NY at Virginia Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season opens TODAY as Virginia welcomes UNC-Greensboro to John Paul Jones Arena to kick off the 2017-18 season, so we’re taking a look at the big man from Down Under-er: Jack Salt.

Salt, now a redshirt third year, is Virginia’s oft-maligned, frequently overlooked center. He started all 34 games for the Hoos last season, averaging 3.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 18.4 minutes per game and added 22 blocks and 11 steals. Most of Salt’s contributions, however, don’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s a (literally) solid defender and gets his teammates open with bruising screens. His work ethic is consistently and constantly praised by teammates and coaches alike.

“He’s improved every year.” Bennett said of his big man. “He’s one of those guys that gets people open. He screens well. He’s so unselfish. He bangs with those guys inside and you need that component when you go against different players. He understands our team defense.”

“He’s a force, man,” fifth year Devon Hall said of his co-captain. He brings it every single day and competes with anybody. He’s a brutal guy. You can look at him...big dude. He speaks vocally, leads by example, and you have respect for him. Everyone on this team respects him, I have tremendous respect for him and the way he carries himself.”

This season, Coach Bennett has made a bigger deal of emphasizing Hall, Salt, and Isaiah Wilkins as captains. His teammates, especially the younger ones, see him as the guy to go to when they have issues.

“Jack’s really good if you’ve got a problem,” second year Kyle Guy said. “He’s not going to yell or anything. If you’ve got a problem you go to Jack. He gives pretty good advice.”

“Jack will probably just beat up someone if there’s a problem” Coach Bennett said with a laugh. “I’ll handle this for you.”

Although he could beat people up on the court, he keeps it reeled in. He’s an effective rebounder, can provide rim protection, and is crucial in creating space on offense for his teammates. The critiques heard most often of Salt - he’s slow, he’s a liability with the ball, he fouls too much - do hold some merit. They aren’t, however, as damning (or extreme) as one may think.

Last season, Salt was thrust into significant playing time thanks to Austin Nichols’s sudden dismissal. A position that seemed to be anchored by a preseason All-America caliber player was now left to a redshirt second year who played just 6.3 minutes per game behind the likes of Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey in his first season. Throw on top of that the back injury he dealt with down the stretch and Salt left it all on the court for the Hoos.

“Such a polite young man and just to see his physicality and toughness,” Bennett told the media, continuing, “...people don’t know what he played through last year. His back was really troubling him. He had a lot of issues and he just gutted through it at the end. We were running a little bit on fumes with Isaiah and then with him (Salt)...he’ll run through a wall for you.”

I won’t argue that Salt wasn’t raw last season at times, but his contributions are consistently undersold. According to Sports Reference, he had the fourth best offensive rating, fourth best defensive rating (excluding players like Austin Nichols offensively and the green machine defensively), and sixth best +/- on the team last season. With Coach Bennett continually highlighting his desire to incorporate post play more this season, Salt’s numbers have a chance to make a significant jump.

Fouling is an issue to be aware of with Salt. He had an impressive 5.6 fouls per 40 minutes played last season according to KenPom. Most of them were probably legitimate fouls, but Jack does fall victim to the “you look like Ivan Drago therefore I’m going to assume you mauled that guard” situation. The rule change allowing players to jump vertically at the rim benefits a player like Salt, and he improved as the season progressed in working that around the rim.

Unfortunately for Salt, he’s a player that needs to face a more traditional five player (like him). Against teams that utilized a stretch-four (Wake Forest, Miami, Clemson) or went small (Pitt), Salt had limited playing time or struggled at times defensively. Against more traditional centers - like Georgia Tech and Ben Lammers - Salt is outstanding.

Coach Bennett has had success with big men progression in his time at UVA. Akil Mitchell made a huge leap in between his second and third year, but part of that was playing time/usage as he waited his turn behind Mike Scott. Darion Atkins’ jump came after his third year, and Mike Tobey stayed relatively consistent as he improved efficiency while maintaining offensive output.

Second Year Stats

Player Year Points Rebounds Shooting % Blocks Minutes Usage Played With
Player Year Points Rebounds Shooting % Blocks Minutes Usage Played With
Akil Mitchell 2011-12 4.1 4.4 50.50% 10 22 6.50% Mike Scott, Assane Sene
Darion Atkins 2012-13 4.7 3.1 49.10% 28 15.7 6% Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey
Mike Tobey 2013-14 6.4 3.8 48.10% 22 18.1 10.90% Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill
Jack Salt 2016-17 3.7 4.1 55.90% 22 18.4 5% Isaiah Wilkins, Mamadi Diakite
Points, Rebounds, and Minutes are a per game stat. Blocks are a season total. Usage is determined using FG attempted divided by total team FG attempted on the season.

Salt’s second year numbers are relatively close to what you saw from Mitchell and Atkins, with Tobey ahead offensively.

Third Year Stats

Player Year Points Rebounds Shooting % Blocks Minutes Usage Played With
Player Year Points Rebounds Shooting % Blocks Minutes Usage Played With
Akil Mitchell 2012-13 13.1 8.9 54.50% 14 22 18.00% Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey
Darion Atkins 2013-14 3 2.2 48.40% 19 10.4 4.90% Akil Mitchell, Mike Tobey, Anthony Gill
Mike Tobey 2014-15 6.9 5.1 51.40% 22 17.1 10.30% Darion Atkins, Anthony Gill
Points, Rebounds, and Minutes are a per game stat. Blocks are a season total. Usage is determined using FG attempted divided by total team FG attempted on the season.

Now there’s just about zero chance Salt gets anywhere near Mitchell levels of production, but if Salt can get to Tobey point production levels this season, that offensive bump would do wonders for the team. The threat of inside offense is crucial to create the spacing for the plethora of outside shooters like Hall, Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Nigel Johnson. He takes high percentage shots and has been working on his offense in the offseason.

“He’s been working all summer,” Hall said at Virginia’s media day. “He’s been working really hard. His hook is coming down, his touch is becoming better when we’re able to throw it into him, watch him make a play. He’s getting a lot better. He’s being more comfortable and getting more confident.”

“I just worked on my finishing, touch around the rim,” Salt stated. “[The] coaches have been really good in helping all the bigs get our moves down, finishing off the pass, the pick and roll. A lot of touch stuff around the rim.”

After Virginia was embarrassed by Florida in the final game of the 2016-17 season, Salt stood out as one of the lone bright spots with 10 rebounds and eight points - one bucket shy of a double-double. If he can build on that performance and consistently provide support inside, the Hoos season ceiling rises. Writing off Salt as a player who is done growing and evolving his game is foolish as Virginia and Bennett have shown to continue big man development over their four years (or when used properly like Jerome Meyinsse).

When the Hoos take the court tonight against UNC-Greensboro, it’s guaranteed Salt will be in the starting lineup. He may not get the most minutes of the big men, he won’t score the most points, and he won’t be the flashiest. He will, however, be instrumental to Virginia’s success this season.

The Stats

Postion: Center

Height: 6-10

Weight: 250

Instagram: @jack_salt