The Virginia Cavaliers are 19 days away from tipping off their 2023-2024 season, and we’re continuing our Virginia Basketball 2023-2024 Countdown with an overall preview of the team’s backcourt and an analysis of each individual contributor.
This backcourt has a fun mix of experience, breakout potential, and young talent. Each player has something to prove, so there will inevitably be ups and downs. Yet the potential is there for this group to be special.
Penciled in starters
As everything does for this team, the backcourt starts with Reece Beekman. After three years playing alongside Kihei Clark and a pair of seasons with Armaan Franklin, Beekman is finally the most veteran presence among Tony Bennett’s guards. You know what he brings to the floor, so do I, so should everyone in the Virginia fanbase by now.
Beekman will lead the ‘Hoos in minutes this season, probably by a comfortable margin. Assuming injuries don’t get in the way again, he’s set to play at least 35 minutes per game, if not more. He’s proven capable of playing that volume of minutes, now it’s about doing so while spearheading the Wahoo offense.
Everybody else who plays in the UVA backcourt will have to complement Beekman in some way, shape, or form. That shouldn’t be too difficult since he’s the type of player who makes everyone around him better, but that’s still useful context to consider when evaluating the rest of this guard rotation.
After being the first guard off the bench for Virginia in the 2022-2023 season, Isaac McKneely returns to Charlottesville with a starting spot awaiting him. His presence as a lights-out three-point shooter will be critical for this team that doesn’t have an extensive list of reliable outside shooters.
After a slow start to his college career when he shot 31.7% from deep in his first 11 games, McKneely shot 42.7% over the next 22. He should stick in the low-forties this season on increased volume this season. The key for him will be developing beyond being a spot-up shooter, but he has the skillset which projects he’ll be able to take on a more significant role off the dribble.
McKneely looks likely to follow Beekman with the second most minutes among the guards. He’s just too good of a shooter (especially relative to the rest of the team) for the staff to keep him off the floor, and Bennett fully trusts him to make the right decisions on either end of the floor.
This is where things get interesting. This story is purely analyzing the backcourt, but there is a world where neither Dante Harris or Andrew Rohde start and Bennett instead decides to roll with a forward-heavy lineup with Leon Bond taking the last spot and providing three/four versatility with Ryan Dunn.
But Harris and Rohde are still seemingly the favorites for the third starting backcourt position.
Harris’ case is founded in what Tony Bennett values most in his starting lineups. He wants his backcourt to heat up opposing guards on defense and have the ability to initiate offense on the other side of the floor. That’s Harris to a tee. He’s not a prolific shooter (26.8% from three on 3.3 attempts per game for his career), but the 6’0” Georgetown transfer can make an offense go and stymie opponents by getting underneath them.
He’s quicker, faster, stronger, and is more disruptive than Kihei Clark was defensively. That alone should indicate that Bennett is most likely to roll with another two point guard starting lineup with Harris alongside Beekman this season.
"Talk about quick, he and Kihei and Reece on the floor going against each other."— Preston Willett (@PrestonWillett) January 9, 2023
Georgetown transfer Dante Harris will sit on the UVA bench this season, but Tony Bennett believes the Cavaliers added a 'quick and dynamic' guard for the future: https://t.co/Y123cGDoAx pic.twitter.com/C5aCw1biT5
Where that’s concerning is that then only one of UVA’s starters would’ve had even a modicum of success as a volume shooter from the outside. A starting lineup of Harris-Beekman-McKneely-Dunn-Minor — which seems to be the most likely group at this point in time — is a combined 31.2% from three in their respective careers. Not particularly pretty.
That number does slightly belie the improvement Beekman has made as a shooter, the projected improvement Dunn will have, and the presumption that Harris will be a better shooter on less volume and less difficulty in the UVA offense rather than whatever Georgetown did when they had the ball. And that group’s strength would undoubtedly be on the defensive side of the ball.
Still though, not exactly an inspiring group of shooters after that doomed the team last season.
Rohde might not bring the same pesty defensive play that Harris does, but he checks a lot of boxes as a potential starter for this team. He’s a capable secondary ball handler, evidenced by his 24.5% assist rate last season which was third in his conference and 204th nationally. He’s also an effective slasher who can create shots for himself and who should thrive in Virginia’s sides offense. The question will be how well he adapts to ACC basketball after starring in the Summit League as a freshman.
His 33.1% shooting from three as a freshman was nothing to write home about. But he was also in a tough spot where he had to take a high volume of shots because St. Thomas had little else that worked on offense. For some context, in one season Rohde actually made only three fewer three-pointers than Reece Beekman has in his entire career.
It’d be unreasonable to expect a major jump in efficiency from Rohde as an outside shooter. But he should be able to shoot 36% from three on 3.5 or so attempts per game after he shot 33.1% on 5.7 per game last year, which included a much higher degree of difficulty than his shots will be at Virginia.
Defensively, he’s probably actually a bit underrated. His 3.0% steal rate was 180th nationally and second in his conference. He’s not going to be a weakness especially within the Packline.
There’s a world where he’s best used as UVA’s sixth man and plays more minutes than, say, Harris who starts. Either way, Rohde will play a critical role in determining how good UVA’s complementary offensive pieces are this season.
Fringe rotational players
The true freshman Elijah Gertrude should be UVA’s fifth guard. At 6’4”, he has decent size for a shooting guard. His game is versatile enough that he can help to bring the ball up the floor, add some solid outside shooting, and make plays for himself off the dribble at times. Once he gets comfortable in the system, he will also be a strength defensively as probably the second most athletic of the guards, behind Beekman.
Virginia officially lands 2023 commit Elijah Gertrude, a 4⭐️ SG from Hudson Catholic (NJ)— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) September 14, 2022
A 6'3 combo guard, Gertrude is one of the most gifted perimeter defenders in his class. His on-ball defense stuck out to scouts & his elite athleticism led to plenty of highlights. pic.twitter.com/qESj7w7Rg0
Gertrude’s minutes could be determined by how well Leon Bond plays and how often the ‘Hoos roll with just two guards on the floor. Whether he’s in the game-to-game rotation or not, there are going to be moments when he shows elite flashes. How much of a role he plays will be determined by how often those flashes are strung together into consistent solid performances, particularly on offense.
Murray is a good depth piece who can play a couple different roles and can do a number of things to a passable degree. He’s a decent shooter, a decent, physical defender, and a decent ball handler who could come in and contribute in a pinch. He’s a good high floor low ceiling veteran to have on the bench, but that’ll likely be the extent of his role on this team.
Bliss is most likely going to redshirt his first season in Charlottesville. With probably six guards ahead of him in the rotation and a pair of point guards included there, Bliss’ opportunity will be in the years to come. He also re-classed for the purpose of spending a year adapting to the college game as a redshirt, so this will be the perfect launching pad for the guy who should be the program’s point guard of the future.