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How can Virginia basketball’s Ryan Dunn become a star?

Analyzing Virginia’s most athletic player and detailing what he needs to improve on in ‘23-24

Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics

Ryan Dunn was the Virginia Cavaliers’ human highlight reel in the 2022-23 season. The sophomore wing displayed his athleticism in spurts through monstrous dunks and emphatic blocks. Dunn projects to start at the four-spot on this year’s team, spearheading the defensive frontcourt and joining fellow returners Reece Beekman and Isaac McKneely as team leaders. One of two legitimate NBA draft prospects on the roster, the extent to which Dunn improves will dictate not only his draft stock, but the success of Virginia basketball this season.

Here’s a few things Cavalier fans can expect— and some areas of necessary improvement— for Ryan Dunn in the 2023-24 season.

Becoming Virginia’s next elite defensive four-man

Every successful Tony Bennett defense has been anchored by an elite defender in the four spot. The extensive list includes players such as Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins, Isaiah Wilkins, and Mamadi Diakite who led some of Virginia’s best defenses. In the past few years, there’s been a noticeable deficiency of fours who can really guard, as Tony Bennett’s looked to the transfer portal to snag more offensively-proficient players like Sam Hauser and Jayden Gardner. Consequently, UVA’s defensive productivity has dropped substantially. They posted seven straight Top-10 seasons in adjusted defensive efficiency from 2014-2020, per KenPom. They haven’t finished higher than 25th in that category in the last 3 seasons.

These defensive struggles can be largely attributed to the difficulty of playing the four spot within the Pack-Line. It’s arguably the most demanding position, requiring constant awareness and quick decision-making. Fours are responsible for doubling the center when he catches the ball in the paint, sprinting back to guard their man after the ball leaves the paint, and filling in for the five-man as he hedges ball screens on the perimeter.

In the clip below, Dunn showcases his mobility and defensive awareness, by running into the paint to fill in for Kadin Shedrick and swat Pete Nance’s layup attempt.

Considering UVA’s undersized roster, Dunn’s ability to double team opposing bigs, and at times matchup one-on-one against opposing centers, will be pivotal against ACC opponents. Duke’s Kyle Filipowski, UNC’s Armando Bacot, and Clemson’s PJ Hall are some of the ACC’s best 6’10 plus players who will cause problems for smaller teams. But with Dunn’s off-the-charts athleticism and 7’1 wingspan, he can irritate bigger players and eliminate passing windows when he doubles them in the post.

Dunn is the elite defender that Virginia has been missing these last few years and he’s ready to make the jump to being a true defensive star.

Being confident and consistent on offense

Now this isn’t entirely defined by statistical performance, but the eye-test revealed Dunn’s struggles with confidence on offense at times last season. There were several instances where he would check-in early in the first half, make a mental mistake or two in a few minutes, and never see the floor again. It’s not all that concerning or surprising for a true freshman, especially because the team around him was full of veterans, but going into this season, Dunn will be called upon to lead the team by example, and he can’t afford to beat himself up over mental lapses.

Despite his stellar defense, offensive inconsistencies kept Dunn from seeing 20-plus minutes of playing time per game last season. He displayed moments of brilliance, with a notable two-game stretch to end the regular season in which he scored a combined 19 points on 8/9 from the field. Yet he primarily contributed as a crowd-amplifier, finishing off basket-cuts and fast breaks with rim-rocking dunks.

These SportsCenter-worthy clips were vital as they energized a sometimes lifeless offensive unit, spurring big scoring runs. But there were many games last year where Dunn was a non-factor on offense, unable to draw defensive attention as an outside shooter and hesitant to attack the rim.

If the Blue-White scrimmage is any indication, things have changed. Dunn attempted threes with zero hesitation (knocking down an impressive one after several jab steps) and he looked poised while dribbling against tight defense. On top of that, Dunn had five assists, a remarkable output for a non-point guard in a twenty eight minute scrimmage. He radiated confidence with the ball in his hands.

Dunn scored in double figures just twice last season. That won’t be the case this year. He’s expected to log upwards of 30 minutes per game, so Virginia will need him to be a dynamic playmaker on offense. Whether it’s knocking down some threes and mid-range jumpers, making contested layups, or providing timely assists, Dunn will be instrumental to Virginia’s offensive success on a nightly basis.

Running the floor

This subheading might seem counterintuitive to Virginia fans, considering that Tony Bennett’s offenses are notorious for their slow pace. However, last season Bennett let his team run in transition more than in previous years, recognizing the roster’s strengths with their speedy ball handlers and proficient passers. With Reece Beekman and Dante Harris as the main ball-handlers, this trend should continue, which is where Ryan Dunn comes into play.

Dunn can run, up and down the floor, on both sides of the ball. His speed, length, and finishing ability at the rim make him the perfect target for outlet passes on fast breaks. Beekman and Harris will create disruptive plays on defense— swiping at ball-handlers and deflecting passes— leading to transition opportunities. When Dunn isn’t snagging defensive rebounds, which he’ll do a lot of, he should be looking for chances to run the floor. Dunn is the ultimate deep-ball wide-receiver, with Beekman as the star quarterback who will find him streaking down the court and deliver perfect passes.

On defense, Dunn’s a chase down-artist, capable of erasing opponents’ fast-break attempts. His body control and wingspan allow him to block shots in transition that would result in hard fouls for most other players. In the clip below, Dunn runs from halfcourt and rejects a two-handed dunk attempt from behind, somehow without fouling.

Dunn’s improvement may be the biggest factor in determining how good Virginia can be this season. For Dunn to ascend on NBA draft boards and help Virginia reach its ceiling, he needs to demonstrate marked improvement on offense as a reliable scorer and not just a one-off highlight maker.