Isaac McKneely, the 6’4” Sophomore guard from Poca, West Virginia, flashed his excellence for the Virginia Cavaliers basketball team in his freshman season. McKneely headlined the most stacked Tony Bennett recruiting class since the legendary 2016 group. He showcased his skillset early in the season, splashing four triples in just his second game in a Cavalier uniform. McKneely quickly played his way into a 6th man role, earning about twenty minutes of playing time per game, while providing an offensive spark with his knockdown three-point shooting.
Looking towards the 2023-24 season, how can McKneely take his game to the next level and help Reece Beekman lead one of the most talented backcourts in the country?
Continuing to hit quick trigger catch-and-shoot triples
McKneely excels in catch-and-shoot situations. He has the quickest jump shot on the team, and can hit from any spot on the three-point arc. In UVA’s baseline mover-blocker offense, McKneely utilized small windows created by off-ball screens to find just enough separation to fire off jump shots. In the play below, McKneely catches a slightly off-target pass, gathers, and buries a heavily-contested three, all in about half a second.
His combination of size and a quick, consistent release point make it incredibly difficult for opposing guards to affect his jump shot. In the next clip, McKneely curls off of a designed double-screen by Francisco Caffaro for a catch-and-shoot 3 at the top of the key.
Whether it’s through the natural motion of one of UVA’s offenses, or a deliberately designed play, McKneely tightly weaves around screens to get himself open. Towards the end of last season, the Wahoo coaching staff began to draw up more ATOs designed to get the ball to McKneely for catch-and-shoot 3 pointers. That trend will certainly continue this season, and the double-wing, sharpshooting combination of McKneely and Andrew Rhode should have defenses spinning in circles.
Attacking the paint off the dribble more
For McKneely to become a reliable 10+ PPG scorer, he needs to continue to improve as a scorer off the dribble. Last year’s team didn’t have a high demand for his off-the-dribble playmaking, with veteran guards Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman filling that role. But with Clark and slasher Armaan Franklin gone, McKneely will need to support Beekman as a legitimate scorer and shot-creator off the bounce.
Despite frequent Kyle Guy comparisons, McKneely’s physical frame more closely resembles former UVA point guard Ty Jerome. It’s fair to assume that UVA basketball’s long-time strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis helped McKneely build muscle this offseason.
He doesn’t have Beekman or Clark’s explosive quickness, but with his combination of size and craftiness he is capable of finishing around the rim against opposing bigs. In the clip below, McKneely drives with his left hand, using his off-hand to (legally) bar the defender, before finishing through contact with a crafty up-and-under layup against two Houston big men.
Houston’s known for its physically imposing defense, and McKneely did not shy away from contact as a first-year player. He should only gain confidence finishing at the rim, and his often overlooked ability to bury pull-up mid ranges will help keep perimeter defenders honest.
Capitalizing on the patented UVA sophomore-season breakout
Standout UVA recruits have a positive track record of breakout sophomore campaigns. Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, and Reece Beekman are three recent examples of top-tier recruits who displayed glimpses of their talents as freshman, before sophomore seasons in which they doubled their PPG and logged over 30 minutes per game.
Many UVA fans have noted similarities between Guy and McKneely, and the statistics support these observations. McKneely made 51 threes on 130 attempts (39.2%) last season, averaging 3.9 attempts per game. Guy also made 51 threes his freshman year, on 103 attempts (49.5%), while averaging 3.0 attempts per game. But in his sophomore season, Guy’s three point attempts skyrocketed to 212 total, 6.2 per game. Guy was undoubtedly the best outside shooter on the team, and Tony Bennett prioritized getting him the ball as much as possible around the arc.
In an ideal situation, McKneely can be expected to take around 6 three-pointers per game along with more volume elsewhere with the added dimension of shooting and scoring off the dribble.
A quick note on defense
Last season, McKneely primarily lined up against the least threatening guard on opposing teams. For the most part he was a solid on and off ball defender occasionally generating blocks or steals through scrappy, heads-up plays. But last season, UVA flaunted one of the best defensive backcourt duos in the country, in Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark. McKneely wasn’t tasked with anything too difficult (besides learning one of the most complicated defensive philosophies in the country).
This year, if McKneely plays around 30 minutes a game, he’ll have to match up against the second best guard on opposing teams. He showed an ability to learn the Pack Line quickly, undergoing a less glaring learning curve than some other first-year UVA guards in the past, perhaps due to the fact that he played the scheme throughout his high school career.
But the question remains if he can do enough to complement Beekman’s lockdown defense. With a year of practice and added strength, he should be able to hold his own while Beekman locks down the ACC’s premier guards.
All in all, McKneely is due to be one of UVA’s best players this season with all the makings of a guard on the precipice of a breakout sophomore season.