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UVA basketball mailbag: Who starts? Who makes the NBA? Where does this team improve?

Answering the most pressing fan questions as we get closer to basketball season.

James Madison v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

The Virginia Cavaliers football team is 0-5 and going nowhere fast, so with UVA basketball nearly a month away, we’re doing a mailbag article today to start previewing the 2023-2024 season for Tony Bennett’s squad.

I solicited questions from Twitter Saturday afternoon for this, so if you’d like your questions to be answered in future mailbags as we get closer to the season and as the season progresses, be sure to give me a follow at @Zach_Carey_ and follow STL at @STL_UVA.

Let’s jump into the questions.

Starting five prediction vs who you want to start? — @CoreyShenk

Don’t think this one is too complicated, but I like the question. For my prediction, I’m confident that Reece Beekman, Isaac McKneely, Ryan Dunn, and Jordan Minor will all be starters at the beginning of the season. The unknown is who fills that third guard spot, presumably either Andrew Rohde or Dante Harris with Elijah Gertrude as the potential wild card. I suspect Harris will start to begin the season considering that he’s been with the program since last January and is an established second point guard/ball handler to play alongside Beekman.

My preferred starters don’t stray too far from that group. Beekman, McKneely, and Dunn are the obvious big three for this team in my opinion. I think Minor works at center to start the season, but depending on Blake Buchanan’s development there’s a world where a Dunn-Buchanan starting frontcourt could be absolutely electric. But I’ll hold off there for now.

I’d rather roll with Rohde as a starter because I think he has a higher ceiling as a shooter and shot creator than Harris and, with McKneely as the only established high volume shooter among the other four starters, I think Rohde is a better fit than Harris. I think there’s some nice versatility such that who starts won’t be a major deal with the ability to mix and match in the backcourt and the frontcourt as the season develops.

Given all the talent on this roster that’s been hyped up (comparisons to previous recruiting classes, etc), how many future NBA players and/or draft picks are on this year’s roster? Just needs to be on an NBA roster to count. — @Ben_Rekosh

Definitely two in Dunn and Beekman. That’s easy. After that it’s a bit more complicated. McKneely is likely the next closest because of the shooting ability, but even he is a bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard. If we’re counting two-way contracts, I think McKneely will hit that mark but I’m not sure about more than that just yet. This year will be a big one for him on that front.

Gertrude and Buchanan undoubtedly have the potential but it’s so hard to make that call right now. I’ll throw Anthony Robinson in there as a guy who could have a potential Mamadi Diakite arc. I’d love to see it for Leon Bond but I’m not certain he does one thing to an elite enough level on the offensive end to get there.

I’ll go with five on an NBA roster. If we were to set an over/under I think it’d be 4.5, maybe 3.5. Dunn and Beekman are locks, it’s just so difficult to predict the future for players who haven’t stepped on the floor for the ‘Hoos yet. Rohde is another name. All those guys are unknowns but I’ll bet on the talent and the program to get them there.

Compared to last season, what statistical areas of improvement would benefit this team the most? Free throw %? Rebounding? 3pt shooting? — @guyncville

I’d forgotten how bad a free throw shooting team Virginia was down the stretch last season, but I think that issue will fix itself. Ben Vander Plas (50.9% on 1.9 attempts per game) and Jayden Garder (68.5% on 3.4 attempts per game) are gone and, while the ‘Hoos will miss their impact in other areas, their contribution to the team’s 237th best 70.3% free throw percentage was a major reason it was so low.

That aside, I think the easy answer to this question is three-point shooting, particularly regarding where the volume of threes is coming from. Not to let another stray hit Vander Plas (who played through a back injury late in the regular season), but he took the third most threes on the team last year and only hit 30.3% of them. McKneely and Rohde need to prioritized as shooters with Beekman, Harris, and Gertrude counted on to hit the open shot when the ball rotates to them.

UVA’s three-point shooting tailed off significantly in the latter half of last season in large part because the team was so reliant on Vander Plas’ ability to stretch the floor that when he went cold and the guards couldn’t make up for it, the offense went downhill fast. This season it’ll be critical for McKneely and company to lead the way as shooters in the backcourt.

Who leads the team in 3PM, 3PA, and 3P%? IMac is the obvious favorite but I could see Rohde for 3PM and 3PA and Rohde, Groves, Reece for 3P% due to fewer attempts and not forcing shots. — @CoachRKeaton

Yeah he’s the easy answer but I honestly don’t see a world where it’s not McKneely for all three of these. Unless Groves’ usage is kept low enough that he far outperforms his career-long efficiency, it’ll be McKneely. He will be a much more featured part of the offense because of how good of a shooter he is which will give him the highest volume quite easily, I suspect.

Although higher volume would logically indicate a drop in efficiency, I actually think McKneely will improve on his 39.2% shooting on 3.9 attempts per game. He started the season in a funk shooting 31.7% in his first 11 games before going 42.7% the rest of the way. I suspect he’ll probably shoot right around 40% this year on 5+ attempts per contest.

Rohde will probably be closest in attempts and percentage. Shooting 33.1% as a freshman wasn’t inspiring, but it was on 5.7 attempts per game with a much higher difficulty than his shots will be in Charlottesville. Presumably he’ll take 3.5-4 triples per game and could scratch high 30s, maybe getting into the 40s.

Groves is a career 34.1% shooter. I’m not going to let last year’s 38.1% on just over three shots per game fool me unless proven otherwise. There’s a chance he gets hot at some point but doesn’t play enough minutes to cool off. But yeah, the good money and my money rests on McKneely.

We are all excited about the talent, but past new additions have initially struggled in the pack line and that has really limited the rotation. What is our comfort level with the new guys on defense? — @BrianBailey22

Always hard to know in October. Think it’ll be very player to player. I expect Harris and Minor to be plus defenders in the Packline both because of their experience and raw ability on the floor. Bond (if you count him as a new addition) has obviously been around and will be a major plus on defense.

Blake Buchanan is probably the most notable unknown. He’s a Virginia Cavalier largely because of his ceiling defensively. He’s a great shot blocker with the athleticism to be able to blow up ball screens, recover to the paint, and win individual matchups in the post. How steep his learning curve is could be a meaningful determining factor for how good this team is come March.

It’s always difficult for first year big men to stay on the floor and manage the load of responsibilities for frontcourt players in the Packline without fouling. But Buchanan has been trending in the right direction for a while now and could be the guy to break the mold there.

I think Rohde will be more or less fine. It’s a lot easier to hide a meh perimeter defender in this defense than it is a meh frontcourt defender. That said, Groves worries me. The over-usage of Vander Plas killed the team on defense far too much, and I sincerely hope that Bennett doesn’t put too much stock in Groves’ potential as a floor spacer at the four to sacrifice being mobile in the frontcourt on defense. I think he’ll be fine if used in a depth role as a change up pitch for opposing defenses, but I’d be concerned if he’s on the floor for 20+ minutes a game.

A lot of people are not talking about our versatility and flexibility in the frontcourt. What do you think? — @HoozDefense

This ties in heavily from the last question. On paper, UVA absolutely has versatility and flexibility in the frontcourt with a variety of different skillsets.

Ryan Dunn is the defensive maestro who can lock down bigger players, wings, and even big guards. He’s clearly still developing his offensive game, but he looks poised to be the next great small ball four for the Wahoos.

Jordan Minor is the Darion Atkins/Akil Mitchell type who will anchor the defense as a small center who plays bigger than his size defensively and then makes the plays around the basket on offense. He’s not going to win the team games, but he won’t lose them.

Jacob Groves is the potential stretch four who adds that different look offensively while (hopefully) not being a detriment to the team defense.

Blake Buchanan is the pure center with ridiculous potential as a shot blocker and an offensive game that should develop as he gets more comfortable. For starters he’ll likely pose the biggest threat as a roller and finisher around the basket.

If those four all play to the best of their ability and are the best versions of themselves, then yes, UVA does have some nice versatility in the frontcourt. Yet all four of them are unproven in some shape or form, so to expect a four-headed monster in Virginia’s frontcourt might be a bit naive particularly after consistency in the frontcourt contributed to the unraveling of last year’s Wahoos late in the season.

Does a single game each against UNC and Duke help or hurt us for ACC regular season title race and, after that, for post-season results? — @StevenLJohnson

Helps for the ACC regular season title race. Negligible impact on postseason results. The ACC even when it’s bad isn’t the WCC, and even then Gonzaga shows up in March pretty well. I think UVA’s schedule is pretty darn favorable from a results standpoint.

Four guard and five guard lineups. Why are they super cool? — @Hooandtrue93

They’re super cool because a team using them suggests that it has the personnel versatile enough to benefit from them. I can totally envision a game in which Reece Beekmn, Dante Harris, Isaac McKneely, Andrew Rohde, and Ryan Dunn are on the floor together. Obviously Leon Bond can be thrown in there too. It would take a particular opponent and a specific matchup, but the ability to spread the floor and switch at least one through four on defense is a huge plus. It opens up the playbook offensively and provides easy answers to defensive problems.

To a lesser degree, that’s one reason I’m excited about Ryan Dunn this season. I’m hoping we get 30+ minutes of him on the floor per game this season, and the vast majority of those minutes should be as a small ball four. Should he make the offensive improvements expected of his raw talent, that will be a boon for Virginia, a program that thrives when it’s able to play small without sacrificing length or rim protection. Dunn can unlock so many doors for this team if he plays to the level many are projecting this season, and that’s why small ball lineups are super cool.