The summer of 2017 was not one of the high marks of Virginia Basketball. We watched in horror as a string of players in whom Tony Bennett had invested a lot of time, energy and belief committed to other programs, some of them after having given Tony a verbal commitment while on a visit. Players from Virginia cool-played Tony then went out of state. The only visitors who came to Grounds and stuck around Charlottesville were a bunch of fucking Nazis, and their visit gave a few recruits cover to tell Tony, "No, thanks." The Hoos needed a point guard in the 2018 class, and Bennett picked out Jahvon Quinerly as his number one guy. Jahvon loved Tony, loved him so much he strung him along while his family was negotiating his signing bonus with Arizona. Then the number two choice, and number three and all the other prospects said no.
But while at Peach Jam, Tony watched a team from California with two relatively unheralded point guards sweep its way to the title. He offered the tournament MVP, James Akinjo. Then a little later he offered the championship game MVP, the other Oakland Soldiers point guard: Kihei Clark.
Kihei didn't even have to think about it. "Yes. Hell yes. HELLZ YES," said the little man with the big game once the offer came. Prior to Peach Jam, the 5-9 Clark was a regional prospect. He had been one of southern California's better guards as a junior, with a marquee matchup against Jaylen Hands in his Youtube credits, and committed to UC-Davis, but with the Peach Jam championship where TeamLoaded could not keep him out of the paint and he hit some key bombs, he became a national prospect. Bennett was not the only power conference coach to notice, but he was the first to drop the offer.
In his senior year of high school, Kihei proved himself to be one of the best players in southern California, earning a string of honors including All-State Division I Second-Team; Los Angeles City Section All-Section Team; Los Angeles Daily News All-Area Team; and Frank Burlison All-Southern California Team. In pre-season tournaments, Kihei was always the best guard on the floor, even when Taft went up against Greensboro Day School's D-1 backcourt of John Newman and Will Dillard. Greensboro Day stopped even having Dillard bring the ball up the court because of Clark's defense. Also in that Greensboro Day backcourt? Some freshman named Carson McCorkle.
Check out this clip, and see Hoo you recognize 😉 pic.twitter.com/RiwX3gTPhI— Seattle Hoo (@SeattleHoo) October 1, 2018
How long has Tony Bennett been chasing those fast, quick point guards who can get into the lane and make things happen? A long time. Jontel Evans was an incomplete version of that, and Nigel Johnson was of the type. Well, those are some of Kihei Clark's strengths. He doesn't blind you with his speed or make you jump out of your seat at how quick he looks, but the kid breaks ankles with a nasty crossover dribble and does that "blink dog" thing where one second he's in front of you and the next you're watching him go by and assuming the big man will send his shit back. Only he has a real knack for getting the ball up just before the big man can get to it. He'll have to prove he can finish with ACC big men in the area, but he mastered it at the high school/AAU level.
His main strengths are mental. He's creative, crafty, quick-thinking and super-confident. He's also conscientious and a leader. He'll talk a lot, which is a great trait in a point guard. He's good at reading the game and anticipating the opponent. I saw him pick off any number of passes and pick a bunch of pockets by recognizing what the player was going to do with the ball and getting there first. It also manifests on offense which allows him to be effective in the lane. He's a smart player with a huge appetite for learning, and is not afraid to ask questions.
Let's not overlook his skills. Kihei has a great handle and is a pinpoint passer. He's got a knack of getting rid of it at the right time and in the right place for his teammate, and can make the right pass both long and short.
In short, Kihei is the consummate floor general. He's also probably more "day one ready" than most people assume. Kihei showed his floor general abilities this summer: "Where you really notice Kihei is when we start playing five-on-five and you see him impact the game that way," Bennett said to Jeff White in "Catching Up with Tony Bennett" on VirginiaSports.Com.
As we'll see below, defense in general at the ACC level is not his strong suit right now, but he was a terror on the ball and in the passing lanes in the high school games I watched. If given the chance to lock up an opposing point guard and stay on him, Kihei can be a plus defender and help disrupt an offense. In broken court situations he is very dangerous because of his anticipation, quickness - and his size, which allows him to lurk in the weeds and pop out to pick off a pass.
Have you seen him? He looks like he could get cut from the middle school team. Kihei's biggest weakness is his size. It's not easy for a 5-9 player to make it in the ACC. Sure, we all can think of a few, but being able to remember them is a testament to how few there are. For Kihei it boils down to two questions:
1) Can he finish in the lane?
2) Can he defend?
If he can't finish in the lane reliably - and reports are he was struggling with finishing at the rim in summer games - it is going to inhibit his ability to drive and dish. Too often teams defend our drivers to pass. If he can't get into the lane and create, then what does he offer? He's a good shooter, but the way London Perrantes was a good shooter: he will knock them down when left open as a third option.
Whether he can be an effective defender is an obvious question with his size. He's not just short, he's also slight. His defense needs to improve - but at this point in his career how many players can't you say that about?
The biggest problem with Kihei defensively is that with his size he cannot guard ACC wings. With him on the floor, can you play the switching defense Bennett has evolved the Packline into? This, to me, is the primary issue with Kihei on the defensive end of the floor (as it is with other players): How is Bennett going to use him? If the Hoos are going to switch screens freely on the perimeter the way they did last year, that's going to lead to Clark matched up with wings frequently. You know damn well the Hall of Fame coaches of the ACC are going to target him when he is on the floor the way they did Guy. Keep running screens until you get Kihei on your 6-6 all-conference calibre wing then take him. Not only does the switching defense expose Kihei to his weakness but it also takes him away from his strength, which is hounding point guards. It does no good to bring in a quick point guard to "heat up the ball" if you're going to switch ball screens. We saw it with Nigel Johnson last year, who came in and rarely wound up actually guarding point guards much beyond when they initiated the offense.
Looking at the roster, it is obvious what role Virginia Basketball needs Kihei to fill this season: backup point guard. He and Ty Jerome are the only point guards on the roster. If Kihei cannot be the backup point guard, that means Kyle Guy is going to have to do it, and minutes that Guy is playing point guard for Jerome are minutes Guy cannot be resting. Without Kihei being ready to step in and play the point, we are going to see a lot of games with both those guys playing 40 minutes.
The other reason Kihei being able to play the point for Jerome will be important is because that is probably the only way De'Andre Hunter will be able to play serious minutes at the four. Unlike two years ago when Virginia had too many wings - half of them being converted point guards - the Cavaliers have no proven wing depth. The only other options for a small ball lineup are Kody Stattmann who "can't guard his own shadow" and might be skinnier than Clark, and Marco Anthony, who works hard and has a great attitude. In fact, Jamie Oakes recently confirmed what we had been hearing: Kihei is going to play, and (absent Key) is going to be the first perimeter player off the bench. He's played his way into the rotation.
Even as first perimeter player off the bench, "reasonable expectations" are probably no more than Teven Jones gave in his first season on the team: He averaged 13.5 minutes per game, with the bulk of those minutes coming in the non-conference. In ACC play, he hit double-digit minutes 5 times, three of them in the first 3 ACC games. It is hard to see Kihei playing 20-25 minutes even in early season non-conference games against the likes of Morgan State and Coppin State, much less 20 minutes against UNC (as Teven did). When the games get serious and the opponents start having numbers in front of their names, expect to see "40" in the MP column for Jerome and Guy. Clark is an undersized freshman who needs to learn how to defend at the college level.
If the defensive scheme for the season is conducive to Kihei being able to stay matched up on opposing point guards, he makes good basic progress in man-to-man defense, and he is able to adjust to college players, that 13.5 minutes per game that Teven played as a freshman could wind up being Kihei's floor. Ty Jerome could get 8 minutes of rest each game and Dre could abuse hapless big man defenders like Marvin Bagley again for at least a few minutes each game. I could see Kihei playing 6-8 minutes each half in a number of games, and at least making a first half appearance in even the major ACC games. Anything more than that is probably beyond any expectation.
I'm sure by now Kihei is as enamored of questions about his height as Jerome was of Doug Doubty's "are you aware..." question. He's always going to hear them, because it's the first thing anyone thinks of. But if you think that his size means he can't be an impact player against ACC teams, or be an effective defender, I have just one thing to say to you:
"Remember K.J. Maura?"
Kihei Clark is fun to watch. He is a player whose production in high level AAU and high school play, and creativity, probably warranted a higher rating than he received, but his physical characteristics bring skepticism. Given the roster situation, he does have the opportunity to earn a spot in the rotation, and he is relatively day one ready. He brings a pretty good outside shot, quickness, an excellent handle, and tremendous basketball IQ to UVA. He's also competitive as hell and confident in his ability. How well he can produce in the ACC will depend on how he can finish in the lane and whether he can employ his defensive strengths well enough to overcome his defensive weaknesses. The key to defense being a strength for Kihei instead of a weakness is in allowing him to really match up with the opposing lead guard, where he can work on disrupting that player's rhythm:
"The best compliment I can give Kihei is that, early on in our summer workouts, he got Ty to get mad at him and throw the ball at his head," Bennett said, laughing. "That means he got under Ty's skin, so he was doing his job."