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Reece Beekman is a step away from greatness

The sophomore point guard flashed his ridiculous potential on Wednesday in a 19-point outing against Pitt.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one quality that defines Reece Beekman’s game — before his active hands, stellar footwork, incredible feel, superior finishing ability, and phenomenal passing — it’s his lightning-quick first step. Whether off a steal in the backcourt leading to a transition dunk or on a drive to the rim, Beekman is capable of turning on the burners to change speeds on a dime.

Considering his struggles over two seasons to consistently knock down perimeter shots, that initial jump he’s capable of getting on opponents has allowed Beekman to still be a threat offensively and to work to draw help to find open teammates.

This season, he’s been an effective lead guard with a 28.6% percent assist rate (good for third in the ACC). He’s also wreaked havoc defensively with a 4.3% steal rate (second in the conference) and a 3.0% block rate (second among ACC guards) while only committing 1.7 fouls per 40 minutes (10th in the conference).

All of that was on display on Wednesday in the Virginia Cavaliers’ 66-61 win over the Pittsburgh Panthers. With eight assists, two blocks, one steal, and just two turnovers, Beekman was in his element.

That type of play hasn’t gone unnoticed by head Coach Tony Bennett. “You look at his stat-line [against Pitt],” notes Bennett. “Him defensively — he always gets his hands on stuff. Blocked a shot at the end of the half. Made the nice pass to Armaan at the end.”

Yet, while the intangibles that have characterized Beekman’s play for the past season and a half were integral to Virginia’s victory over Pitt, it’s the next step that he’s taking in his development that catapulted both his production and the UVA offense to another level on Wednesday.

As it has on a few occasions this season, Beekman’s three-ball was falling against Pitt. Hitting three straight triples in the first half, his demeanor noticeably shifted as he gained confidence and began to make plays for himself and search for his own shot rather than primarily deferring to others. That resulted in a 19-point outing for the sophomore on 8-11 shooting from the field and 3-5 from deep.

Of note, for the first 12:58 of the Pitt game, the Virginia offense scored a measly 0.71 points per possession.

Yet, once Beekman knocked down his first long ball of the night, the Wahoos scored an impressive 1.32 points per possession for the rest of the contest.

“It was great to see Reece step up like that,” said Bennett after the game. “His ability to slash [is impressive] and as he gets more comfortable, as he continues to keep improving his shot, and gets stronger his best basketball is in front of him.” In fact, Bennett emphasizes that “he’s been trending in this way for the last number of games and that’s huge for us.”

As Bennett pointed out, Beekman has been steadily improving his outside shooting. In eight conference games so far this season, he’s actually shooting a very respectable 38.1% (8-21) from behind the arc on 4.8 three-point attempts per 100 possessions. Last year, Beekman shot 20.8% from deep in ACC play on just 3 threes per 100 possessions.

Granted, six of the eight threes Beekman has made in conference play came in two games. He also shot 3-15 from deep in non-conference play. That said, improvement is improvement and he’s showed off just how dynamic an offensive threat he can be when hits shots.

In fact, in those two games this season that Beekman has hit multiple triples — Wednesday against Pitt and December 22nd versus Clemson — the Wisconsin native shot a combined 9-11 from two-point range.

So, why is it that Beekman is so efficient as a scorer when he hits a couple threes? Obviously, part of that is due to the rhythm that comes with hitting jumpers. But — for Beekman’s specific skillset — making jump shots opens new doors for him and for the team in general.

To comprehensively understand what Beekman’s perimeter success does for Virginia, it’s critical to examine how opponents tend to play off of him because they don’t expect him to hurt them from deep.

In plenty of games this season and last, teams have refused to guard Beekman on the perimeter and sometimes even decided against closing out to him in order to force him to shoot rather than having the option to slash to the hoop.

That’s exactly how Pitt played Beekman early Wednesday. For starters, on this early possession Pitt plays well off Beekman and allows him to hold the ball on the perimeter while daring him to shoot.

That continued as the half progressed. Here, Beekman’s defender is courageous enough to double down on the adjacent Jayden Gardner and leave the point guard open on the perimeter. Even when Gardner kicked out to Beekman, the defender closed out half-heartedly while being sure to prevent any chance at a blow-by drive.

Yet what broke the mold for UVA was that Beekman shot and made that three when he was left open.

By making that shot, Beekman started to make Pitt think a bit more. Granted, for the rest of the half the Panthers continued to play off of the sophomore. Like here where Beekman’s man once again helps over to Gardner while leaving Beekman standing ten feet away from Gardner fairly open.

Then, even after he’d nailed two triples, Pitt kept helping heavily off of Beekman. As he’d found his groove from deep, he knocked down another long ball as his defender closed out more recklessly.

Beekman’s willingness to shoot those threes and the improvements he’s made to start knocking them down did wonders for the Wahoo offense. Because Pitt was aware of his capability to knock down shots if they played off him or didn’t close out hard enough, the Panthers actually started over-committing on their closeouts. They did exactly what Beekman needed them to do: they took an extra step towards him.

Once Pitt started jumping out too far and closing out too hard, Beekman pounced. To start, he took advantage of this hasty and poorly angled recovery to drive the baseline and find a cutting Francisco Caffaro for a rim-rocking dunk.

Then, later on, Beekman exploited another poor, over-committed closeout from the slower John Hugley to slash his way to the rim for a contested finish.

Once the sophomore started to make outside shots and forced Pitt to be aware of that threat, the rest of his strengths were only amplified. Because Pitt started to close out hard, Beekman utilized that wicked first step of his to blow by those defenders.

But attacking closeouts wasn’t the only area where Beekman took advantage of Pitt’s concern for his outside shot. When attacking ball screens, he tactically pulled defenders out to the perimeter and then found the big rolling to the hoop.

Note how Beekman’s defender works to fight over the Kadin Shedrick screen. That’s significant. In the past, defenses tended to slip under screens against Beekman because he wasn’t a threat to knock down an open three.

But once he established his jumper, Pitt was forced to try to step over the pick while also committing the big to a soft hedge which left Shedrick open on the roll.

We see Pitt work over a ball screen again when playing zone. Here, because there was no help to stunt Beekman’s, he was able to drive to the rim nearly un-opposed — thanks to a Francisco Caffaro seal. That burst of acceleration from Beekman once he sees his defender step over the Gardner screen is evident of just how dangerous he is when teams have to account for his outside shot.

By coupling his intangible traits as a point guard with an improving three-point shot, Beekman is slowly progressing towards being a serious threat to score the ball at multiple levels.

Now, another critical element of Beekman’s development is simply that he needs to be more assertive as a point guard. For a player as talented as he is, he shrinks into the background too often.

But just as he stepped up as a shooter on Wednesday, he was also notably more aggressive. It was clear he wanted the ball in his hands and worked to make that happen. With the ‘Hoos up two and roughly 40 seconds on the clock, Beekman worked to get open while his defender tried to deny him the ball.

Once Kihei Clark got the ball to him, Beekman went straight into attack mode as he denied a Jayden Gardner screen and blew by his defender to touch the paint, draw help, and find a cutting Armaan Franklin to put the game on ice.

That play was evidence of just how complete Beekman is when he can make shots. His defender had to play him out on the perimeter. When the ball screen came that defender had to be prepared to fight over the screen. The pick also drew the big man out to the perimeter to potentially hedge which opened up more space. With that open lane Beekman utilized that explosive first step to penetrate the defense and then was in control and smart enough to look up and find the cutting Armaan Franklin.

Suffice to say, Wednesday night was a masterclass of a performance from Beekman that exemplified just how high his ceiling is at Virginia. The next step will be to start being more and more consistent. He doesn’t have to shoot 3-5 from three every night. He just needs to continue to pose a perimeter threat while simultaneously acknowledging his role as this team’s most dynamic playmaker.

When he does that there really is no telling what Beekman’s ceiling is. Basketball is a game of chess and with the versatility that the ascending point guard possesses, he’s the most valuable piece on Tony Bennett’s board.