As the Virginia Cavaliers are just six days from kicking off their 2021-2022 season, we’ll be previewing each player on the Wahoo roster and evaluating the role they’re likely to play this year.
Starting with the elder statesman of the program, Kihei Clark is a lightning rod among the UVA faithful as his significant contributions over his first three years have come with loads of successes. Yet, his skill set and style of play means he’s fairly inconsistent and can be prone to trying to do too much offensively.
Granted, Clark has also been burdened with tons of responsibility these last two seasons as he’s really been the only perimeter playmaker who’s capable of creating his own shot. As a result, he’s had to take the blame for far too much that is out of his control and more so a result of flawed roster construction than his own inabilities.
Looking at Clark’s basic stats from his first three years as a Wahoo, his ever-changing role on these teams has been an interesting development to track.
Kihei Clark Career Stats
In his first year he was very much a complementary player meant to make the lives of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome easier as he took both ball handling and point of attack defending responsibilities from his older, more talented teammates.
In the Covid-shortened 2019-2020 season, Clark had to take on the massive task of replacing the production of the big three with little to no help in the backcourt. Frankly, that was likely too much for him too early in his career. But, give him credit for pulling that team together and essentially leading the ‘Hoos to nine straight wins to close out the season.
Then, last year, Clark was able to hand some of that scoring and creating burden off to a more talented front court of Sam Hauser, Trey Murphy, and Jay Huff while Reece Beekman relieved him of some ball handling duties in the backcourt. That said, he was still the only true creator on the team — at least from the perimeter.
I say all this to reach the point that this season will likely be a test not of Clark’s further development as a leader of the offense. But, rather, his ability to shift to a less ball-dominant role as this team and his back court mates are equipped to take on more responsibility.
In other words, it’s become clear that Reece Beekman is the program’s point guard of the future and needs to be used more as a true point guard this season as he’s set up well for a breakout year. His emergence plus the arrival of Indiana transfer Armaan Franklin — who is a bucket getter and shot creator in his own right — mean that Clark’s offensive role will most likely be reigned in this season in favor of increased usage for those around him.
That’s not an indictment of his abilities. It’s just the reality of playing alongside better, more experienced guards than he has since 2019. He’s still going to have to provide offense by attacking ball screens, touching the paint, and finding teammates both on the perimeter and the inside.
Clark is undoubtedly a very savvy player who has learned how to play among the trees. As long as he doesn’t try to do too much and can release some of his creating responsibilities from the last few seasons, Clark is on track for what could be his most efficient season in Charlottesville.
Kihei Clark dimes up @Treymurphyiii for the jam! #ACCMBB | @UVAMensHoops @ClarkKihei pic.twitter.com/WoumwJM2g0— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) December 22, 2020
As for his specific development, it sounds as if the fourth year has revamped his shot this offseason as he’s eliminated a drop in his shooting motion and is releasing the ball much quicker and more fluidly.
That will hopefully remedy his somewhat surprising three-point shooting regression last season and provide much needed spacing to allow big men Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick to go to work inside. He won’t be a high volume, knock down shooter from deep. But, if Clark can stop allowing teams to play off him on the perimeter like he did last season that would be huge for this offense that is likely going to be challenged to space the floor.
Then, defensively, Clark is as consistent and stout as they come. He’s proven time and again his penchant for frustrating bigger players and utilizing his diminutive size to get in the grill of opponents. He’s not necessarily a shutdown perimeter defender but he’s well versed in the pack line system and will be critical in meshing so many new pieces together.
All in all, this season may be Clark’s biggest test yet. Tony Bennett often emphasizes that a critical element of the humility pillar in his five pillars is that his players know what role they play and what their limitations are. For Kihei Clark to lead this team he’ll need to know when to step forward but, also, when to step back and let other guys go to work.