After their first season without an NCAA tournament berth since 2013, the Virginia Cavaliers are currently set to return seven scholarship players: Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro, and Taine Murray.
In this season review series, we’ll take a look back at each player’s performance this year and where each of them stands. At the end, we’ll wrap it up by discussing expectations for each player next season.
The first player we’ll look at is sophomore guard Reece Beekman, who saw increased playing time after his breakout freshman season and has only begun to scratch the surface of his sky-high potential.
What Reece brings to the table
Reece is a master of the little things on the basketball court, an excellent decision-maker and defender who consistently makes impactful plays on both ends of the floor. It’s easy to see why Tony Bennett was so willing to give him playing time as a true freshman on a very talented squad in 2020-21.
When Beekman is on the court, he rarely makes any of the typical mistakes — a bad shot early in a possession, a defensive lapse, a careless turnover — that Bennett tends to lack tolerance for. Every decision Reece makes is sound, and he perpetually plays with a calm, unfazed demeanor.
Some of Reece’s impact shows up in his statistics. In the 2021-22 season, he recorded 181 assists and just 50 turnovers, good for a 3.6 assist-turnover ratio — the best assist-turnover ratio in the ACC, and the second-best in the entire NCAA. Reece and Miami’s Charlie Moore were the only two players in the ACC to average at least two steals per game, and Beekman also added 25 blocks for good measure.
However, other aspects of what he does are harder to quantify. Take, for example, Virginia’s 74-69 victory over Syracuse early in the season. Reece finished with just 2 points on 1-2 shooting in 32 minutes of playing time, but was easily the most instrumental player to Virginia’s offense that game.
The team elected to place Beekman in the middle of Syracuse’s zone defense and prioritize getting him the ball in a position to facilitate and create open shots for his teammates, and he stayed consistently one step ahead of Syracuse’s defense. Though he didn’t stuff the stat sheet, Reece’s decision-making propelled Virginia to their third-highest-scoring game of the season.
Despite being a 6’3” guard, Beekman is also the linchpin of Virginia’s defense. His high steal and block numbers are just the tip of the iceberg: he’s is always in position, doesn’t get lost off-ball, has a nose for passing-lane deflections, and can match up well with just about any guard in the country.
With Reece on the court this year, Virginia’s defense allowed 99.8 points per 100 possessions; with him out of the game, that number leapt up to 111 points per 100 possessions. Those are the sorts of on-off differences you expect from elite defensive-anchor centers, not pesky perimeter defenders.
For comparison, Virginia’s defense improved by 11.2 points per 100 possessions with Reece on the court, while Duke’s defense with ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Williams on the court was actually 6.8 points worse per 100 possessions. Pound for pound, Beekman was undoubtedly the best defender in the ACC as a sophomore.
Beekman’s athleticism and nose for the ball on defense make him a key to Virginia’s transition attack as well. When the Hoos do run in transition, it’s usually off a live-ball steal or deflection by Reece. He’s very efficient when pushing the pace, especially compared to in the half-court, because the chaos amplifies his athletic advantages.
In transition, Beekman shot an elite 67% at the rim this season (a higher percentage than Armando Bacot); in the half-court, that number declined to a middling 53% (a lower percentage than 5’11” Charlie Moore).
Finally, Reece did take some minor steps to shore up his biggest weakness — his jump shot — this season. While no one’s going to be confusing him for Curtis Staples anytime soon, Beekman almost doubled his three-point volume (from 35 attempts to 67) and improved his three-point percentage from 24% to 34%. Most importantly, he knocked down jumpers when they counted, including the biggest shot of Virginia’s season: a last-second corner three to knock off #9 Duke on the road.
Where he can still improve
Reece’s biggest strength — his tendency to always make the most sound decision — can also be the most frustrating part about his game. He can be deferential to a fault offensively; passing up good looks for great looks is sound in theory, but sometimes it would be nice if Reece would just take some of the good looks.
Additionally, his game as a scorer continues to be more theoretical than tangible. Everything seems to come in flashes. One game, Reece will absolutely baptize Keve Aluma at the rim, and the next, he’ll try to slither around contact and force himself into tricky looks around the basket. He’ll go 3-3 from beyond the arc in the first ten minutes of one game, then just decide not to hunt his shot from three.
To be clear, this inconsistency is to be expected from a young player. It’s so easy to forget that Reece, who’s already played 60 games for the Hoos, is still just a 20-year-old sophomore. It’s also preferable to consistent mediocrity.
Given the choice between a guy who’s a solid B- scorer every time he takes the floor on offense and a player who can fluctuate between C- and A+, I’ll take the latter every time. If they can figure out how to bring that level of play every night, they can be the cornerstone of an elite basketball team.
There’s also one other major area of concern with Reece, and that’s the jump shot. It’s true that he has made progress, and it’s true that he’s made the two biggest shots for Virginia basketball during his career at UVA: game-winning threes against Syracuse and Duke.
However, the raw numbers don’t paint a pretty picture. Reece shot just 26% on long twos this season and 34% from three on fewer than two attempts per game. This matches up with the eye test: Beekman is a hesitant shooter from range, with a fairly awkward and low release. Opponents frequently sagged off him off-ball this season to provide additional help, and went under ball screens with Reece as the ball handler.
Reece doesn’t have to become a knockdown jump shooter; that clearly isn’t his style. However, developing a quicker and more effective jump shot that at least threatens opposing defenses will go a long way in helping expand Reece’s game.
Not only will he be able to score more consistently from every level of the floor, but adding a jumper would force defenders to guard Reece more tightly on the perimeter, allowing to beat them off the dribble with his quick first step and get downhill towards the basket — which is probably where Reece wants to be shooting the ball, anyway.
How he fits into the 2022-23 roster
After two seasons of learning the ropes, this needs to be the season where Reece finally takes the reins offensively and becomes the driving engine behind the offense. He doesn’t have to be the leading scorer — Jayden Gardner, with four years of experience honing his post game, is probably more well-suited to that role — but he should be the primary initiator and ball-handler offensively.
With Kihei Clark’s return for a fifth season, Reece probably won’t immediately take over lead ball-handler duties. However, as the season progresses, moving Reece on-ball and Clark off-ball makes a lot of sense, especially if Virginia sticks with its mover-blocker scheme.
After posting career bests from three in both volume and efficiency, Clark is suited to slide into a catch-and-shoot threat role; his height limits the amount of attention he’ll command, because Kihei’s shot will always be easier to contest than other guards or wings, but there’s no doubt that Clark could continue to score efficiently and make plays in this off-ball role.
Being the lead ball-handler is also more well-suited to Reece’s skillset. In the rare situations where Virginia pushes the pace, he’s better than anyone on the roster at getting to the rim off the bounce and finishing. Placing the ball in his hands more often would also amplify Reece’s ability to set teammates up for good looks — there’s no reason not to give more creation responsibility to the guy who just finished second in the NCAA in assist-turnover ratio.
While returning reliable foundational players like Kihei Clark and Jayden Gardner ensures that Virginia will have a high floor next season, Reece Beekman’s growth will define the team’s ceiling. He’s already capable of doing everything Tony Bennett asks for in a guard: defending at a high level and making sound offensive decisions.
Now, if Reece can add more scoring versatility and turn his flashes of offensive potential into consistent dominance on that end of the floor, while keeping up his almost-unparalleled defense? ACC, look out.