Five true freshmen join the Virginia Cavaliers roster for the 2023-24 season: Blake Buchanan, Elijah Gertrude, Anthony Robinson, Christian Bliss, and Desmond Roberts. Following an offseason of extreme roster turnover for the Cavaliers, the lack of an established rotation should give some of these freshmen an opportunity to cement spots in the rotation.
While Tony Bennett tends to prefer experienced players when everything else is equal, he’s also demonstrated a willingness to get young and talented players on the floor when it’s in the best interest of the team. Both Isaac McKneely and Ryan Dunn worked their way into the roster as true freshmen over the course of last season, and both played key roles down the stretch for the Cavaliers.
Which freshmen look likely to shine for the ‘Hoos this season?
Buchanan, a 6’11” freshman forward from Idaho, stands out as the true freshman with the most obvious path to becoming a key contributor for the 2023-24 Cavaliers. He committed to Virginia in July 2022, early in the recruiting cycle, and outside of some interest from Gonzaga always seemed set on Virginia as his collegiate destination.
In high school, Buchanan earned Idaho’s Gatorade Player of the Year award for his dominant play for Lake City. He starred for the Timberwolves, who won the 5A state championship after an undefeated 26-0 season, averaging 15/10/3 with 2 steals and 2 blocks per game. Buchanan indisputably was the best player in the state of Idaho in the 2022-23 season.
Virginia officially lands Blake Buchanan, a 3⭐️ center from Idaho, in their first commitment of the class of 2023.— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) July 3, 2022
Buchanan's size, fluidity, defensive instincts, and potential as a jump shooter intrigued the Virginia coaching staff. Now he's officially a Hoo. pic.twitter.com/hpNVyy0k1v
What evaluators appreciate more than performance against relatively weak high school competition, though, is how top recruits stack up against one another. Due to a combination of his breakout senior season and Pacific Northwest location, Buchanan secured an invite to the 2023 Nike Hoop Summit.
The Nike Hoop Summit is one of the premier events on the recruiting trail, a veritable All-Star Game for top prospects in front of college and NBA evaluators. Virginia recruiting target London Johnson’s strong performance at the event played a major role in the offer he received to join the G-League Ignite out of high school. This season, five of the top six recruits in the nation played alongside Buchanan, who recorded eight points and eight rebounds.
Buchanan’s offensive game needs some refinement, but he’s plenty capable already as a post scorer and has the athleticism of a top-tier rim-running big. The jump shot, always key to a big man’s upside in the modern game, is a work in progress but could eventually come along.
His path to minutes this season, though, is through defensive intensity and versatility. In our first public glimpse at Buchanan in the Blue-White scrimmage, he stuck out in a positive way on Tony Bennett’s favorite end of the floor. The Cavaliers ran out a lineup with Ryan Dunn at the 4 and Buchanan at the 5, and it absolutely flummoxed everything the opposing team tried to do on the interior. His quickness and instincts at his size have the potential to be special.
It’s hard to break into the Virginia rotation as a freshman big — we saw another talented state Player of the Year with a strong pedigree come to UVA last season and not even sniff the court before transferring to Creighton. In fact, Traudt’s 4-5 performance from three in last year’s Blue-White scrimmage was a more impressive individual performance than any of Virginia’s players put on in this year’s event. But Buchanan excels in the areas where Tony Bennett is most demanding, and a thin frontcourt rotation due to transfers and graduations gives the true freshman a window of opportunity.
For my money, Buchanan’s the most likely freshman to make a major contribution this season. He might not start or even see much playing time against some opponents, but there’s a world where Virginia’s best five-man lineup features Buchanan at center.
Gertrude, along with Buchanan, received the most buzz of the incoming 2023 recruiting class — and if you watch his highlight tape, it’s very easy to understand why. The 6’4” guard out of Hudson Catholic in New Jersey may be the best pound-for-pound athlete on the roster.
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 came up as a multi-sport athlete, playing point guard along with quarterback, wide receiver and safety. His quickness and bounce are exceptional on both ends of the court, allowing for athletic finishes and highlight blocks which most players at his size are totally incapable of making. Perhaps it’s no surprise that his favorite player growing up was electric Memphis guard, NCAA champion, and NBA MVP Derrick Rose.
So what’s the catch? Gertrude’s jumper remains a work in progress entering college, and he’s still recovering from an ACL tear which forced him to miss his senior season of high school at Hudson Catholic. At the Blue-White scrimmage, Gertrude wore a brace on his right leg; if the team plays it safe and allows Gertrude to return only when he’s 100 percent healthy, that would make some sense.
Gertrude played calm and under control in the Blue-White scrimmage, placing an emphasis on running the offense and mostly blending in as a cog in Virginia’s mover-blocker offensive scheme. He might fill that role this season — figuring things out as he goes, and not playing a major role in the rotation. Virginia’s backcourt is already crowded.
But the flashes were bound to show up eventually. On the final play of the Blue-White scrimmage, Gertrude dribbled into a three from about 35 feet out and swished it. Hopefully that basket — the highlight of the event — is just the first of many for Gertrude in a Virginia uniform.
Elijah Gertrude hits a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end today’s #UVA basketball Blue-White Scrimmage.— Matt Newton (@mattynewtss) October 14, 2023
Watch full video highlights from the scrimmage here: https://t.co/rFkc0EMmyk pic.twitter.com/xuQPLxOQlp
Robinson was a late pickup for the Cavaliers, a raw and toolsy center originally from just outside Atlanta but who played his high school ball in North Carolina. The 6’10” big man offers no illusion of positional versatility — he’s the only player listed with a “center” designation on Virginia’s roster and is basically a pure traditional five.
However, Robinson’s upside is tantalizing. He had two of the most exciting plays of the Blue-White scrimmage, both rim-rattling dunks as the roll man, one resulting in an and-one. Robinson’s an incredible athlete. It may take some time for him to get acclimated to Virginia’s defensive system (he looked confused a few times running offensive sets in the Blue-White scrimmage, too), and for such a raw prospect a redshirt wouldn’t be surprising. But Robinson profiles to play a role for this program down the line.
Due to an open scholarship spot on the Virginia roster, Bliss reclassified into the 2023 incoming freshman class after the 6’4” guard spent two seasons at an independent school in Pennsylvania. It’s already been announced that Bliss will redshirt the 2023 season, but he’ll have the opportunity to practice with the team and get a head start on learning Tony Bennett’s system.
Bliss, a dynamic scoring guard who averaged 20/5/5 in his final year in Pennsylvania, drew interest from Miami, Xavier, and Villanova while he was still a 2024 recruit. However, he decided to reclassify to 2023 and attend Virginia instead. Bliss looked raw in the Blue-White scrimmage, but that was to be expected — his recruitment should pay dividends starting next season.
One positive omen in the tea leaves: Bliss won the Friends Schools League in Pennsylvania with his high school, the George School, in 2022-23. The last Virginia recruit to play in the Friends Schools League and then redshirt helped win the Cavaliers a national title and then went fourth overall in the NBA Draft. It’s not exactly reasonable to put those expectations on Bliss, but the vibes of that connection can’t hurt.
Desmond Roberts, a local guard from St. Anne’s-Belfield earned a preferred walk-on spot at Virginia this summer, turning down D-I interest from schools like Towson to round out the incoming 2023 class. He’s unlikely to be a major contributor for the Cavaliers, but as someone with roots in the area shapes up to be a great culture fit. Keep an eye out for Roberts in pregame warmups at home games this season: he’s an elite dunker.