There may not be a more polarizing player on this year’s Virginia basketball team than Jack Salt. Some, like our own Caroline Darney, commend Salt for all the little things he does that don’t show up in a box score: setting hard screens, tipping the ball out to keep possessions alive, and his intimate knowledge of Tony Bennett’s packline defense that enables him to constantly be in the right position (or so she tells me). Bennett went so far as to name Salt a captain this year, along with seniors Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins, so clearly there’s some merit to the argument that his contributions go beyond the stat sheet.
Yet to many other Virginia fans, myself included, watching Salt can be unbelievably frustrating. On the offensive end, whatever third year bump was expected hasn’t materialized. While his field goal percentage has improved, he’s still averaging only 3.4 points per game and shooting just 40% from the line. He’s a complete non-factor who often never even looks at the basket when receiving the ball or corralling an offensive rebound.
Defensively Salt’s better. His physical presence helps contest shots around the rim, he hedges and recovers well for someone his size, and his post traps have gotten tighter and more timely. Still Salt has always had one glaring drawback on defense: he just can’t stop fouling people. Except recently, against all odds, he’s found a way to go cold turkey and stay away from the whistles.
Salt has committed one foul or fewer in his last seven straight games. While that doesn’t sound impressive, he only had three ACC games all last season where he was called for just one or zero fouls. But this isn’t just a recent phenomenon. After averaging 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes as a freshman and 5.7 as a sophomore, Salt is all the way down at just 3.6 fouls per 40 minutes in his junior campaign. That’s not exactly a minuscule rate as it’s still the second highest on the team behind Mamadi Diakite’s 5.1 mark, but it’s in line with what a center should be averaging in Virginia’s defensive scheme that asks so much of the position.
When compared to other UVa centers’ junior seasons Salt’s foul rate is downright reasonable. At 3.6 his fouls per 40 minutes mark is still a shade above Akil Mitchell’s (2.8) but he’s well below what both Mike Tobey (4.4) and Darion Atkins (5.0) averaged in their third year. Clearly fouls aren’t the entire story, Tobey had an offensive game that Salt doesn’t dare even dream about and Darion was an incredible shot blocker, but it’s improvement in an area that seemed would never change.
Perhaps most encouragingly, Salt’s recent stretch of foul abstinence has come against a variety of opponents. Whether it’s been against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone, Florida State’s supremely physical style, Louisville and Virginia Tech’s uptempo approach, or whatever the hell it is Pitt calls the way they ‘play basketball,’ Salt has found a way to avoid the ire of ACC refs. I’ll be the first to admit he isn’t a perfect player (see paragraph two above), but this evidence of continuous improvement in at least one aspect of his game should be encouraging to Salt’s supporters and critics alike.