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UVA Basketball Mailbag: McKneely and Dunn’s growing roles, reason for defensive struggles, dream transfer, and more

A little Boxing Day basketball discussion for ya.

James Madison v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Now that the Virginia Cavaliers men’s basketball team has dropped its first two games of the season, I decided to do another edition of my UVA Basketball Mailbag as I solicited questions from Twitter. If you have a question you’d like to ask and have included in the next mailbag (which I’ll likely do in a few weeks time), be sure to follow both Streaking the Lawn’s twitter account here and mine here.

What’s holding back Ryan Dunn’s playing time?

Weirdly enough, it’s the offensive side of the ball that’s keeping this UVA freshman off the floor. Per, UVA is 15.1 points worse offensively with Dunn on the floor, which is third worst on the team. Of course, as the eye test backs up, the Wahoos are a crazy 15.7 points better defensively with him in the game than on the bench. Take each of those and Tony Bennett’s got himself tough decisions to make.

This isn’t to say that Dunn is bad on offense. He’s just not there yet. His 10.9% usage rate on offense is by far the lowest on the team as he simply doesn’t provide enough oomph in any area on that side of the ball. He’s 2-5 from three on the season and can definitely hit a shot here and there, but he’s not a volume shooter at this point. And, while he can be explosive in transition and is capable of making the occasional play off the bounce, neither is reliable enough to make him even a net-zero contributor offensively yet. Especially since he’s largely played at small forward, his lack of playmaking ability limits what Virginia can do.

Of course, the potential is absolutely there for him to be a weapon on offense. Whether it’s this season or in those to come, there will be a time when it clicks for him and, when that time comes, watch out. But, right now, he just doesn’t bring enough on that end to validate 20+ minutes per game. If Virginia can’t buy a basket on offense with its lesser defenders or (vice versa) has a lot of production from, say, Reece Beekman and Jayden Gardner in one game, playing Dunn on the wing has its benefits because of his defense. But because of how far apart his offensive and defensive on/off splits are, he’s going to continue to be a more situational piece than a relied on contributor.

From this point going forward who starts more games between Franklin and McKneely? Who plays more minutes?

Franklin will probably start more games and most likely play more minutes just because McKneely is going to have to start hitting shots consistently to actually overtake his veteran teammate. McKneely is probably a better defender, but Franklin gives more offensively and isn’t necessarily bad on defense, if sometimes a bit technically unsound and not athletic enough to make up for it.

Now, if McKneely (34.2% from three on the season) can start hitting closer to a 40% clip and continues to show the flashes of aggression off the bounce which he’s displayed in the last few games, he could take Franklin’s starting spot come the close of the regular season. I think it’ll take time for him to get there (if it does happen this season) so Franklin will still play and start more than him. But it’s definitely something to watch once ACC play starts for real.

Outside of Reece’s health, what is your biggest factor that needs to improve for us to make a deep run and how likely do you think that’ll be to improve?

Is it too simple to say shooting? I’ll make it harder on myself and say that that’s too easy. Obviously simply hitting more shots and the aforementioned recovery of Reece Beekman would be two boons for the team. But I’ll go a bit outside of the box here and say that the utilization (or lack thereof) of Kadin Shedrick on either end of the floor is what needs to improve the most for this group to make a run.

Maybe this is wishful thinking, but Shedrick’s potential is too significant to ignore the fact that him playing at his best alters how we assess this team. Being able to play him for thirty minutes in a game and relying on him to be reserved but properly aggressive as a help defender and shot blocker makes the UVA defense significantly better. That reserved element is critical, though. Too often this season he’s been overly-aggressive and handed opponents easy baskets while occasionally committing silly fouls and over-committing to contesting shots. This, of course, is while he’s 25th nationally in block rate and 123rd in steal rate.

Suffice to say, a honed in, mistake free Shedrick on defense adds an erasing and playmaking ability that the team needs to make up for some of its flaws on that end. It’s no doubt difficult to find the proper balance between necessary and valuable tenacity versus excessive aggression. But that’s the first factor for Shedrick (and the team) that would improve Virginia’s performance big time.

On offense, it’s hard to evaluate Shedrick at times since a lot of his production is a result of others making plays and then him being in the right spot and converting. That’s just how the Bennett offense is built to run for most big men. Shedrick has been great in that role, finishing 87.9% of his shots at the rim (79.3% of which were assisted) which is absurd efficiency.

But, I think there’s still more that can be drawn from Shedrick’s strengths to benefit this offense. He’s both an elite finisher and an elite rim runner while the North Carolina native also makes good decisions with the ball in his hands and is confident in contributing to the ball movement on the perimeter.

Giving him more schematic responsibility and emphasizing getting the ball into his hands in high leverage situations — versus mismatches or once the defense is already rotating, perhaps after a ball screen — could expand what the UVA offense can do. In football, being able to threaten defenses with the quarterback as a potential runner adds another guy into the scheme that defenses have to actively account for. Adopting a similar concept with Shedrick could help alleviate some of the stress and responsibility heaped on the shoulders of the Wahoo backcourt and open things up for Virginia offensively.

Just so you can nerd out on college basketball, find a random mid-major player you would try to convince to enter the portal and come to UVA based on current or future team weaknesses — so a BVP 2.0.

Because roster construction is such a fluid thing in today’s day and age, I’ll make this fun and go with the mid-major player I’d add to this team for the remainder of the season. Yes, UVA already added Georgetown’s Dante Harris as a midseason transfer so there actually aren’t any scholarships left right now. But this is hypothetical and it’s my site so I’m giving Virginia another scholly in this scenario. To make it more difficult, I’ve only allowed myself to choose between mid-major players on teams outside of KenPom’s top-100.

With all that in mind, I actually found my guy pretty easily. Give UVA Tyler Nelson, a 6’6” wing from Navy, and they’re right back in that legit top-five conversation. While Nelson only scored two points against Virginia last season on 0-7 shooting from the field and 2-4 from the line, he’s meaningfully expanded his offensive game since then while maintaining his high level of disruptive defensive play.

Despite entering his fourth season shooting a career 30.6% from deep on 1.74 attempts per game, Nelson is shooting 50% from deep this year on 5.81 attempts per game. That’s 26th in the country! He’s an elite three and D wing who could play both the three and a small ball four for UVA, shut down wings on the perimeter and also provide physicality and flexibility on the inside while threatening opposing defenses as a knockdown, quick trigger three-point shooter. He’s even got a decent face-up post game and can attack the basket with force.

Just watch the first thirty seconds of this highlight video from Navy’s win over William & Mary and try to tell me why Nelson wouldn’t be a fantastic add for this team.

In retrospect, Nelson now is essentially what UVA should hope Ryan Dunn will be by his junior year. But having that type of player now would be so huge for this team. Heck, if the military school rules allow him that extra year of COVID-19 eligibility (I won’t pretend to know either way) and he’s interested in a fifth season somewhere else, Tony Bennett should pick up the phone the first opportunity he gets. Nelson would be similarly great on next year’s roster as well.

When Bond/Traudt redshirted, there was talk of taking it a month at a time… over a month in, any update on if these will keep?

I don’t have any inside information, but I suspect that Bennett said they’d take it a month at a time more to say that, should the team lose a player to injury or one of them dramatically improve in that time frame, burning the redshirt would still be an option. Basically that they wouldn’t be in street clothes on game day. As of now, I still don’t expect either to see the court this season.

That extra year is valuable and, while Bond could probably provide plus perimeter defense with his athleticism and Traudt could add some needed shooting in the front-court, each of their limitations and reasoning for redshirting is still relevant no matter the weaknesses of the current roster.

What has happened to Gardner’s FT form compared to last year?

So, for context, despite being a 74.2% career free throw shooter and going 79.3% (96-121) last season for the Wahoos, Jayden Gardner is just 60.9% as a free throw shooter in ten games so far this season while taking far more free throws relative to shot attempts than he did last year (57.5% free throw rate this season versus 27.7% last season). Additionally, his midrange shooting is down from 45.3% (120-165) to just 37.8% (14-37) which both indicates the lesser reliance on him offensively, but also how (strangely enough) such lower volume has only come with worse efficiency. That 7.7% drop in success rate from the midrange suggests he should only ever be taking those shots in the final seconds of the shot clock or when the team absolutely needs a bucket.

There’s a reasonable point to criticizing his shooting form. While he’s never had the prettiest of motions, it does seem like he’s pushing the ball more than he used to and extending his arms more forward than vertically. What I’ve seen is that, because he’s just 6’6”, he typically has a different form when shooting uncontested/slightly contested shots versus heavily contested ones. He will often fade away with his body when necessary while he seems to almost be more comfortable shooting with a hand in his face that he has to account for and definitively not push the ball too much.

Maybe I’m reading too much into a relatively small sample size for such an experienced player who’s been a good shooter in his spots. But whether or not Gardner can succeed in achieving an uptick or regression to the mean with his free throw shooting and midrange game is an underlying factor in the improvement of the Wahoo offense.

What’s causing the late closeouts on 3 point shooters that have been plaguing us this season, and how do we fix it?

There are a multitude of reasons for UVA’s poor-performing three-point defense this season. Yes, the PackLine does sacrifice allowing contested jumpers for preventing paint penetration so some of Virginia being 213th in the country in three-point defense is a result of that. That being said, the Cavaliers’ defensive 41% open three rate (per ShotQuality) being 338th nationally is evidence of more deeply rooted problems.

Unfortunately, there are a number of contributing factors to this larger issue. First off, lacking athleticism on defense particularly amongst the starters is a bit of a problem which limits the team’s ceiling on that end while also lowering its floor. While Beekman and Shedrick are each definitive plusses, the 5’9” point guard Kihei Clark, 6’4” small forward Armaan Franklin, and 6’6” power forward Jayden Gardner mean that the Wahoos are a bit lacking for length and height. Yes, size is by no means everything and each of those three can be really good on defense. But a general lack of size means that the team’s rotations have less room for error because of the space that isn’t covered.

UVA has also straight up played some tough opponents. Michigan’s combination of Hunter Dickinson down low and an on-fire and lengthy Jett Howard made life tough as Virginia tried to both stop Dickinson from beating them while also preventing easy looks off of post passes. Baylor is stacked with shooters in the backcourt. Houston’s Marcus Sasser and Miami’s Isaiah Wong are both guards who can penetrate and create looks for their teammates while also being able to punish defenders who don’t stay in their grill.

Add that all into the fact that the season is only ten games long and that Beekman hasn’t been his fully healthy self while Shedrick has been a tad too inconsistent and UVA’s struggles make sense. Beekman’s return to full health, the further incorporation of Dunn and McKneely into the rotation, Shedrick’s potentially solidified role at center, and simply more time under the tutelage of Bennett and his staff should get this team headed in a better direction in regards to guarding the three-point line.

My son is a double Hoo (class of ‘16 & ‘17). My wife and I have watched every game since ‘13 & are huge fans. My wife graduated from Albany and says she will be dressed as a Great Dane, wearing purple & gold for the upcoming game. My question is: Is this grounds for divorce?

Loved seeing this one. As someone whose girlfriend goes to the University of (belches) Maryland and had to deal with two demoralizing losses in men’s lacrosse in the spring, I know this pain. Fortunately, Wednesday’s game probably won’t go the same way those two contests did. Cross your fingers for a stress free, enjoyable evening where Albany puts up a little fight in the first half before the big boys run away with it. Anything much worse than that from a UVA perspective and that divorce consideration becomes more legitimate.