Before the Virginia Cavaliers’ men’s basketball team gets back into action this Saturday at home against the Boston College Eagles, we decided to have a roundtable discussion about who’s been the most surprising player for the ‘Hoos this season.
So guys, good, mediocre, or ugly, who’s been most surprising for you through UVA’s first eighteen games of this season?
From a player who many assumed would redshirt to a key cog in Virginia’s spread offense who recorded the second-most minutes on the team in the team’s victory over Wake Forest, Ryan Dunn has been this season’s most pleasant surprise. His motor is unbelievable: while on the floor, Dunn grabs over 20 percent of available defensive rebounds and blocks over 10 percent of opponent two-pointers, both marks that lead the team by a considerable margin. Dunn also recorded Virginia’s highlight of the season thus far with a massive poster in transition against James Madison.
Within Virginia’s new motion offense, Dunn has thrived; he offers all the versatility of a small-ball four on offense with none of the defensive or rebounding downsides. The ’Hoos are outscoring opponents by almost 21 points per 100 possessions when Dunn and small-ball front-court mate Ben Vander Plas share the floor. He’s already an extremely effective player with superstar upside if his isolation scoring game develops; for now, as a true freshman, Dunn will already be crucial to Virginia’s postseason chances.
I’ve been impressed and surprised that Ben Vander Plas has (at his best moments and recent stretch of really strong games) become exactly what my highest expectations for him were. As we all know, this is not an easy team to just show up and integrate yourself into - with its particular system and non-negotiables, but BVP has been absolutely critical to the Wahoos’ success and really fits the mold of exactly what UVA is looking for in a stretchy front-court player. He’s still right at the 33% three-point mark he put up last year at Ohio, but they’ve been falling for him a little more in recent big games against FSU and UNC (and a couple of key makes on the road at Wake).
More importantly, he battles, man. UVA’s success with a small lineup has really sparked the team in ACC play, turning the conversation and outlook for the rest of the season around after a disappointing loss at Pitt - and BVP’s play is a major reason for the success that strategy has had. We all know his family connection to Coach Bennett (or every TV announcer will remind you), so he clearly knew what he was getting into by joining this program, but it’s impressive to see how successfully he’s taken up the pillars.
Moving into the backcourt, I think Armaan Franklin’s rise this season is probably going under-appreciated. Not that his establishment of consistency is necessarily a surprise — the potential was always there and his struggles last season were probably more a result of injury issues and needing time to adjust to UVA’s system — but the way he’s especially flourished of late within Virginia’s three-man motion or triangle offense is something I wasn’t expecting.
Since Bennett decided to go small against UNC, Franklin is shooting 45.8% from beyond the three-point arc, 58.8% at the rim, and 54.5% from the midrange. That’s in comparison to 39.1%, 43.3%, and 33.3%, which is pretty significant improvement. Sure, it’s only a three and a half game sample, but it’s on pretty high volume for him. Franklin also just looks so much more comfortable within the triangle. The types of threes he’s taking and the lanes to the basket suit him more than those of Virginia’s sides offense.
For the season, he’s been very efficient. His 8.4% turnover rate is 44th in the country (while his 6.1% rate in conference is second) as he’s the perfect style of guard to fit alongside Beekman and Kihei Clark since he can hit open shots, make some plays off the dribble especially when attacking a defender moving towards him, and he doesn’t make mistakes on either end of the floor. Franklin has raised UVA’s ceiling this year and he should only continue to produce at a high level.
Hard to say Kihei Clark’s impact surprised me at this point but let’s backtrack to the preseason. A lot of us were skeptical about whether Clark’s heavy usage would hold Reece Beekman back from being fully impactful. In reality, Clark and Beekman have complemented each perfectly and made each other better. Heck, they’re shooting 39.3% and 46.7% from beyond the arc, respectively. Clark has taken another leap into what’s now an elite scoring guard and an all-conference player.
We’re running out of surprise candidates. I guess Gardner is next on my list. Really, Gardner is the same player as last year. He’s shooting the ball a bit worse (especially from the line), but he’s still the same guy. I bet you didn’t know that Gardner leads the team in usage rate. However, in conference play, he’s just third. That’s the surprise. Gardner’s play isn’t surprising, but his role is. Or rather his lack of a role. Seemingly all of a sudden. Gardner averaged 26 minutes per game and 12.5 points per game in December. He’s averaging 20 minutes and six points per game in January. Is anybody really all that surprised though?
I don’t know, I’d say Gardner’s diminishing role counts as some sort of surprise, or maybe it’s the surprising growth of Dunn and BVP that contributes to that? Either way, it applies to Kadin Shedrick too, unfortunately. While different, the fact that both are losing ground to the newcomers in the front-court is a development I don’t think many of us were expecting entering the year, especially since Shedrick was second only to Beekman among who most of us thought would have a breakout year.
It’s been for a variety of reasons, and I’ll be putting out a longer form story on Shedrick and why he hasn’t been playing much recently in the coming days. But, on the most basic level, it’s both due to the fact that he hasn’t developed how it was expected he would and because the scheme UVA’s running right now doesn’t suit him. Add that up and it’s tough to push for the 25 plus minutes per game that I was envisioning he’d get entering the season. That’s not to say he can’t flip this script and surprise us in positive ways moving forward. That’s very possible and he’s entirely capable of that. It’s just not happening at this moment, and that’s a shame for such a talented player who’s also just a good dude.
We also probably should give some flowers to arguably the team’s best player, Reece Beekman. Although his ascension this season was a necessary one, that doesn’t mean it’s not still impressive.