[AIR HORN SOUNDS]
The Virginia Basketball season is FINALLY here after one of the longest off-seasons in recent memory. Towson comes to town tonight for a 7pm contest at John Paul Jones Arena, the first game since their season abruptly ended in the NCAA tournament. Virginia returns a lot of talent with Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and De’Andre Hunter leading the way for Coach Bennett, and the addition of Braxton Key has bolstered the Cavaliers’ already high season expectations.
Behind all the frills and flare and preseason accolades is Virginia’s lone senior: Jack Salt. That’s how the fifth-year center wants it. He’s a soft-spoken guy whose role on the squad is to be the ultimate team player. Need a bone-crushing screen set so Kyle Guy can get open for one of his threes? Jack’s your dude. Need a defensive stand? He’s got you.
“He absolutely doesn’t back down from anything,” teammate Ty Jerome explained to Paul Woody of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “He’s definitely someone you want to have on your team. He does absolutely anything to win. I’ll go to war with that every day.”
Nothing about Salt’s stats—3.4 points, 4.1 rebounds—scream “this guy is important”. His benefit to the Hoos lies between the lines. Salt has started 68 straight games for the Cavaliers over the last two seasons. In that time, Virginia has gone 54-13, including 28-9 in regular season ACC play. As a captain last season, he averaged just over 19 minutes a game, something you can expect to see from him this season. He has admitted to learning as much as possible from teammate Isaiah Wilkins, and that influence showed last season with some of the tip-out, keep-the-ball-alive plays.
He’s the guy that shows up, works hard, collects ball caps because he “likes the color”, eats Chipotle five times a week, and was picked most likely to be studying by some of his teammates.
This past summer, Salt made the New Zealand national team, also known as the Tall Blacks, and participated in the FIBA World Cup qualifying. “I learned a lot,” Salt said. “I got to play with professionals. Grown men who have been playing basketball for a long time and just see how they do things, how they prepare for games, and just how important practices are and how they value every practice.”
Have you heard about Salt’s screens? They’re brutal.
“If you play the way I do, people [opponents] don’t like it,” Salt told Woody. “But I really don’t care. It’s never anything personal. It stays on the floor with me. If it helps my team win, if that means me playing physical and not giving up anything, I do that. I have my teammates’ backs within those lines.”
Screens are possibly the most un-sexy, underrated play in basketball. But it’s so much more than putting his 6’10, 250 pound frame in front of people. Salt is an expert at reading opposing defenses and knowing exactly where—and which way—to stand to free up shooters like Guy. It pays off, seeing as Guy was one of the (if not THE) best shooter in country last season coming off screens. That’s not insignificant.
Defensively, Salt registered 11 steals and 22 blocks last season, all while being called for just 3.7 fouls per 40 minutes.
But, it’s not just his screens or defense. In 12 of his 34 games played (35%), Salt was perfect from the field. There’s something to be said for knowing your strengths and weaknesses. He’s not a great shooter, so he doesn’t jack (lol) up a bunch of shots. He shot 64% from the field, which is also his eFG% as he took zero three pointers last season. His offensive rebounding percentage of 9.6% was good for 216th in the country, and his box plus/minus of 7.1 was fifth best on the team
The landscape of the ACC is always tough, and Salt will have his hands full with the likes of Duke’s Zion Williamson, Clemson’s Elijah Thomas, and Syracuse’s Pascal Chukwu this season. “The ACC is good every year. No matter what there’s always going to be good players,” Salt said. “Some teams are always going to bring in these five stars, but it’s exciting. Every single game just focus on that one game and give it our best shot. That’s all we can do.”
It’s no secret that Jack Salt struggles offensively. Although he’s improved year over year on that side of the ball, his 3.4 points per game don’t move the needle much for either fans or opposing defenses. KenPom categorizes him as “nearly invisible”, meaning he’s used on fewer than 12% of Virginia’s possessions.
“Yeah, we generally don’t produce much in the post, so that’s something we generally try and work on every year,” Salt told me at ACC Media Day. “This year that’s something Coach has put a big effort on getting very specific moves he wants us to do an very specific ways he wants us to call for the ball so that we get the ball inside.”
Moving the ball into the post was something Virginia expressly worked on last season, even if Salt or Wilkins weren’t going to necessarily take a shot. Salt can—contrary to popular belief—corral the ball in the post, but he certainly doesn’t have the soft hands of Anthony Gill or Akil Mitchell of years past. Having Mamadi Diakite or Jay Huff on the court will keep opponents from slacking off in the post, and they’ll rightfully see significant playing time as a result (or at least Diakite will...jury is still out on Huff).
Unfortunately for Jack, the game is trending away from traditional big men, instead opting for stretch-fours that force opponents to protect against three pointers and post moves. He has owned Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers in seasons past, but Lammers is (finally) gone from the league.
When it comes to facing players like ACC Player of the Year favorite Luke Maye of UNC, expect to see the quicker Mamadi Diakite or even De’Andre Hunter or Braxton Key trying to lock him down. That doesn’t mean he loses value in the Pack Line. He’s excellent at double teams and can stay with quicker guards driving the lane (more on that below).
Some may balk at someone as large as Salt having just 4.1 rebounds per game, but his ability to block out opponents sets up his teammates to pull in loose balls.
Oh, and he is absolutely terrible at free throw shooting, making just 38% of his attempts. That’s...not great.
Best 2017-18 Game
I almost went with Jack’s eight point, eight rebound, two steal performance against Clemson in the ACC tournament for his best game, and that would have been justified. But there’s a game that better showcases exactly what Jack does: Virginia’s 65-63 win over Duke in Cameron Indoor. Ty Jerome’s shot is what you will think of first (lol because duh), but Salt’s low-key impactful game illustrates his behind the scenes, quiet contributions perfectly.
Salt scored seven points—five in the second half—and added three rebounds. He had just three fouls to go with two steals with no turnovers. Tasked with trying to limit the likes of Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley, Salt played an exhausting 31 minutes in the post. His presence, although small, was crucial to the Virginia victory.
Here’s his second half:
- Leading 37-34 with 14:39 to play, Salt slides behind Bagley and Carter Jr. for a dunk through contact (22:12 mark).
- Tied 39-39 with 13:51 to play, Salt stays with the much faster Duval, blocking the ball out of bounds. Guy would steal the ball to end the possession (23:12 mark).
- Trailing 41-39, Salt creates space for a jumper (it’s goal-tended) to end a 2:30 scoring drought by the Hoos (his dunk being the last UVA score). He’s fouled by Carter Jr. and makes the free throw to give Virginia the lead. Before Salt’s basket, he twice affected the trajectory of two Devon Hall misses that allowed Virginia to retain possession. Neither were reflected in the box score (24:42 mark).
Those are just the plays that are highlighted in the box score.
Best 2017-18 Play
There’s no other option here. Salt had some monster dunks and some big blocks, but no play stands out more from last season than when he destroyed NC State’s Lavar Batts on a bone-crushing screen. The “ohhhh” from the JPJ crowd that turns into cheers after Devon Hall’s three pointer is chill-inducing.
Year: Redshirt Senior
2017-18 PPG: 3.4
2017-18 RPG: 4.1
Favorite Food: Chipotle