There were plenty of issues for the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team in the 2021-2022 season. New pieces that took time to gel, a lack of depth, near to no defensive fluidity, physical limitations on that side of the ball, and young players who were still on the verge of a jump in production but hadn’t made it yet all contributed to a roster that was extremely inconsistent over the 35 game season. Three wins against Elite Eight teams (with two on the road) were the highs, while losses to James Madison, Navy, NC State, Florida State, and St. Bonaventure were the obvious lows.
The “easy” solution
But, perhaps the easiest fix to those irregularities would have been straight up better shooting. Virginia finished 247th out of 358 D-1 teams in three-point shooting last season at 32.3%, good for third worst in the ACC. Perhaps worse yet, the ‘Hoos were 340th in the country in three-point rate (three-point attempts/field goal attempts).
The 2021-2022 Wahoo offense often struggled for easy points. While most Tony Bennett squads deal with long scoring droughts, they came too often for last season’s team and a lacking ability to generate easy buckets outside of a Jayden Gardner midrange/post up left the offense wanting. Throw in a lack of overall spacing (outside of that provided by Gardner’s limited magnetism as a mid-range shooter) that came with such poor shooting and that offense was never going to be highly-efficient.
Supposed flame-throwing transfer Armaan Franklin only managed to hit 29.6% of his long balls despite shooting 5.1 per game. Kihei Clark had a slight dip in efficiency from 37.5% in the 2020-2021 season to 34.2% last year. Reece Beekman was far improved (24.3% to 33.8%) but didn’t shoot it enough to make a drastic difference for the offense.
Meanwhile, there was no deep threat amongst the rotational front-court. And, on the wing, neither the Aussie Kody Stattmann (20-59, 33.9%) nor the Kiwi Taine Murray (8-23, 34.8%) could provide meaningful contributions as complementary offensive pieces.
So, as a whole, UVA only had two players average more than two three-point attempts per game in Clark and Franklin. And, especially considering how each of them shot the ball, that’s not acceptable for an ACC program.
Why UVA needs perimeter threats in its system
That’s particularly true in a UVA offense that fundamentally needs shooters to function at a high level. By and large, the two offensive sets which the ‘Hoos relied on last season were their high ball screen look and their traditional mover-blocker (or sides) offense.
Take this play from the 2019 Elite Eight against Purdue as a prime example of the value of shooters in sides. Just a minute or so after hitting a three off of the basic pin down and curl action, Kyle Guy once again runs off a Jack Salt pin-down in the typical mover-blocker motion. His man, Ryan Cline, notices and navigates around Salt, but still gives Guy some space. Seeing this, Carsen Edwards shifts to his right a bit to help, so when Guy catches the ball from Ty Jerome he pump fakes as Cline catches up to him and passes the ball back to Jerome.
But, because Edwards felt the need to help over a step or two, that made his necessary approach out to Jerome slightly reckless which gave the Wahoo point guard a lane to drive towards the paint with his left hand and, as Cline quickly hedged to Jerome before trying to recover to Guy, Salt came back with a flare screen, catching Cline off guard and producing what was probably one of the more open triples of Guy’s career.
On the one hand, this play worked because of its design and the continuous motion of the mover-blocker offense. On the other, it’s a result of the players making the system work. Guy’s gravity as a shooter put so much pressure on defenses that forced subtle but exploitable shifts from the defense. Such steps in the wrong direction are exactly what the mover-blocker system takes advantage of.
Here’s another example of Jerome and Guy scoring a bucket on Purdue simply because of a slight defensive misstep. Ryan Cline’s reach to his right to try and get a finger on Guy’s bounce pass to Jerome means that he’s a step behind Guy as he flows in the opposite direction and another flare screen from Salt is the nail in the coffin as Cline gets caught up and Jerome sends a laser of a one-handed bounce pass right where Guy needs it to rise up and get off a clean look.
You know how analysts and coaches always talk about how the UVA offense wears opponents down? This is exactly what they’re referencing. One moment of over-aggression, over-help, or lack of attention can cost you dearly when Virginia’s system is humming and shots are going down.
What UVA did last season
Last year, however, this element of the UVA offense was almost completely missing. There was so little ability to exploit opposing defenses on the perimeter, so the focus went to attacking the paint where Beekman and Clark were more comfortable operating and could utilize the skill-sets which their bigs did have. Clark, Beekman, and at times Franklin would look to curl off the pin down screens rather than cut off of them as often in order to touch the paint and try to draw opposing bigs to come help.
This can be an incredibly valuable element of the mover-blocker offense. Beekman’s quick change of direction from jogging to the baseline to cutting towards the middle of the floor caught Isaiah Wong by surprise and, by using Gardner’s screen, he forced Gardner’s defender to step up-court which provided the perfect space for a bounce pass and floater. The efficiency in plays like this is part of what kept the ‘Hoos alive last season. Basketball is all about angles and there’s nobody better at reading them as a passer than Reece Beekman.
But, and this is where the three-point shooting comes into play, last year’s offense was limited by its personnel. There wasn’t enough variety in this roster and the overall inability to hit threes meant that the space that is generated in mover-blocker largely went wasted. Now, it’s worth noting that expecting a team to replicate what players like Jerome and Guy were able to do is a bit unrealistic considering just how good the two of them were. But the potential benefits of the system with shooters present is obvious.
How can the offense improve?
So, that brings us to this coming season. There is some good production returning and what UVA was able to rely on from Gardner and from Clark and Beekman’s playmaking is the foundation for a good offense. Throw in maybe more reliable scoring from Kadin Shedrick and there is at least a decent floor for this squad’s offense.
But what could and should set this team apart is undoubtedly a more threatening perimeter game that can exploit the space that mover-blocker creates. How do the ‘Hoos reach that point? Well, there are a couple answers.
For starters, simple growth from returning rotational players is an important baseline. In reference to Clark and Beekman, those two aren’t going to be game-altering as better shooters this season. Their role as shooters is more a reliability to hit the open, set shot when the opportunity presents itself. And that’s a reasonable expectation considering how Beekman finished the season as he was 15th in the ACC in three-point shooting in conference play at 39.5%. Meanwhile, Clark had a number of eye-opening shooting performances which underline what he can bring as a shooter.
But, those two can’t be relied upon as the team’s most consistent shooting options as neither is typically best at high volume. So, where are we going with this? Who can provide the shooting that this offense needs to be highly successful?
The most obvious first answer is Franklin. Yes, his percentage from last season wasn’t anything to write home about. But, that was more a result of his streakiness than it was anything else.
By the end of the season, he seemed to have figured out how to create space for himself within the mover-blocker action and started to look like a slightly more consistent shooter. In this clip from the North Texas game, he catches his defender lacking and uses the Caffaro pin-down to knock down a corner three.
In overtime of the same game and once he’d started to cook a bit from deep, he punished his defender once again. This time his opponent made the heinous mistake of going under Jayden Gardner’s pin-down, allowing Franklin to fade back away from the screen a bit, catch, and drain a three that essentially pulled the ‘Hoos away from the Mean Green.
For Franklin, he admitted that one year playing in the sides system has helped him grow more comfortable. “I’ve learned how to manipulate my defender either into running into the screen or at least creating enough separation to be able to get off the screen,” he said at the team’s media day last week. “I think at that point, [when] you figure that out, it’s just about knocking down the shot.”
In terms of knocking down his shot, he admitted that consistency was a problem for him last year, but how that’s been an emphasis for him this offseason as he’s been “just trying to string days together. Try to have a good day and follow it up with consecutive good days.” He admitted that “you might have a bad day in there,” but has strived to make sure that he doesn’t “let that affect how you think about yourself or how you think about your game.”
So, with just more consistency out of the Indiana transfer and what should be expected improvement for a player in his second season in the system, that will automatically raise the offense’s floor. Of course, the next question for the offense and the team’s shooting proficiency in particular is regarding how the new pieces will perform.
The next best potential threat on the perimeter? That one’s easy: Isaac McKneely. The freshman with the best shot at cracking the rotation this season, McKneely is a knock-down shooter and played in the mover-blocker offense throughout the entirety of his high school career. He already has a concept of how to move and exploit the angles of the offense.
“The angles, everything is important especially when you’re being guarded by guys like Reece and Kihei, so you’ve got to do the little things to get your shot off,” McKneely commented last Wednesday. He noted how he’s been emphasizing to “not drop [the ball], shoot it as soon as you get it, coming off [the screen with] feet ready,” adding that “Coach Bennett has been working with me as far as cleaning up my footwork and getting my shot off quicker, so that’s really helped me get my shot off.”
Surely time playing in the UVA system this summer in Italy and throughout fall practices will have honed McKneely’s know-how. But, frankly, he arrived in Charlottesville already as a significant threat. Just watch these three clips from the West Virginia State Tournament last spring.
On this first play, he notices how his defender is fighting over the pin-down screen, so he proceeds to leak back into the corner to give himself enough space to shoot.
On the more pronounced curl up court here, he fakes his defender out with a hitch as he pretends to be running back to the baseline in order to give his big time to set the screen. And, once he has slight separation, his shot is off.
Lastly, McKneely gets his defender to hesitate for a split second and by the time he recovers, McKneely’s shot is already tickling twine.
Yes, he was bigger and faster than everybody else in high school so it will be more difficult for him to get his shot off in college. But the comfort he already has as a mover should provide the UVA offense immediate help with its outside shooting. A backcourt with McKneely and a more consistent Franklin could be a scary prospect for Virginia’s opponents.
What about after those two? Taine Murray could be another option to provide shooting on the wing, but he’s not known for it quite as much as either McKneely or Franklin. That said, he shouldn’t be counted out for rotational bench minutes should either of those two guys struggle.
Added elements in the front-court
But, moving on from the guards and to the front-court, the additions of Ben Vander Plas and Isaac Traudt could potentially add yet another element to this season’s offense. I detailed their importance as pieces who can create more lineup versatility in this story from last week. But what, specifically, does their combined presence on this roster provide the UVA offense?
Let’s start with the mover-blocker offense I’ve been detailing so far. As blockers, Vander Plas and/or Traudt will be different options from what UVA had last season. Remember that clip of Beekman and Gardner up above? Gardner stayed in or near the paint on that play in order to roll to the hoop for a Beekman feed. That’s because, while he could occasionally fade out a bit for a midrange jumper, his range doesn’t extend that far past 15 feet. Yet, both Vander Plas and Traudt’s do.
This play from last season against Iowa portrays exactly the value that those two can have in this offense. With Murray playing small ball four, he sets a pin down screen for Franklin off screen which Franklin tightly curls off of. Murray proceeds to back out into the corner, and because Franklin is threatening in the paint, his defender is caught trying to help guard the ball, allowing for Murray to take and make what was a huge triple for the ‘Hoos in that game.
Murray’s limited minutes last season were the only times when the ‘Hoos could threaten to run this action as none of Gardner, Francisco Caffaro, or Kadin Shedrick were threats to shoot the ball from deep. But, Traudt and Vander Plas are each very good, maybe even great shooters and should give opposing defenses headaches as they have to adapt how they play depending on who is on the court for the ‘Hoos and won’t be able to commit to protecting the paint as much as they did last year versus UVA’s sides offense.
Now, while UVA’s spread high ball screen offense wasn’t used that much last season, Vander Plas and Traudt could make that set naturally more effective as well. With Gardner and Shedrick in the front-court, UVA had to run the offense with one big already sitting in the paint, two guards on the perimeter, and then one guard handling the ball with the screening big rolling to the hoops. Long story short, spacing was at a minimum and that both literally and figuratively condensed what the ‘Hoos could do out of it.
But, by playing Vander Plas and Traudt at either the four or the five, all of a sudden there are far more variations open. If one of them is the screener, as seen in the clip below from a game the team played in Italy, they can pop out to the perimeter and punish defenders who sag off of them.
Additionally, each of them could be put in the corner or on the wing in order to pull opposing bigs out of the paint in order to let UVA’s point guards and Kadin Shedrick go to work in the pick and roll with far more room to do so than they had last season.
So, altogether, UVA’s improvement on offense this season is both quite simple while also incredibly complex. It really does come down to better and more three-point shooting. Obviously, it’s deeper than that and the specific offensive sets and how the players fit into them will be how that happens. But the success rate of Franklin, McKneely, Vander Plas, and Traudt as deep threats should be (in the spirit of tomorrow’s midterm elections) a bellwether for the success of the entire offense.
Of course, the degree of growth of Reece Beekman as a scorer for the offense and Kadin Shedrick’s limitation of foul trouble and development offensively are similar factors which will be incredibly important for the ‘Hoos this season. But shooting is everything in today’s game, and that’s never more true than in UVA and Tony Bennett’s offensive system.