It's a new year and with the colors of the leaves, so changes the color of Frankie Badocchi's shirt. No longer red, it now is the same color as the rest of his teammates. After a year of recuperating from knee surgery, immersing himself in the system, working on his physique and his skills, and preparing his teammates for a season of ACC dominance, it is now Francesco's time to step onto the stage and take his part in the concert.
Late in the class of 2017 recruiting cycle, UVA received a tip from a scouting service about an Italian kid at Kansas City basketball powerhouse Bishop Miege. They took a look, liked what they saw and jumped into a recruiting battle with Illinois and then-new coach Brad Underwood for Francesco Badocchi. Coach Underwood had been recruiting Badocchi since he was the coach at Oklahoma State. Virginia won the battle due in large part to the academic opportunities the University presented. Francesco always was going to redshirt, but the surgery to clean up his knee just provided an easier to explain justification. He had a lot of development to do on his game. Coach Bennett told him to watch Isaiah Wilkins carefully and learn what he could about playing defense. Bennett clearly sees Francesco as being able to fill that Akil/Isaiah role in the Packline.
How to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of a player you've only seen on highlight clips from his high school games? It's difficult and great subject to error, but a few things jump out: Frankie has plus athleticism, the obvious athleticism that people notice. He's bouncy, probably the bounciest of Bennett's big men aside from Mamadi Diakite. Not only can Frankie get high up, but he gets off the ground very quickly, for the first, second, third jump. He's fast up and down the court and lateral quickness is not a question mark at all. He has long arms and long, supple fingers. He has tremendous body control and fluidity to his movements. If you thought Isaiah Wilkins and Mamadi Diakite could jointly cover a lot of hardwood, wait until you see Frankie and Mamadi together! They'll be like a couple of ents from Entwood with blink powers. It remains to be seen if Badocchi can match Wilkins for shotblocking timing and positional instincts, but he brings a verticality and raw quickness Isaiah does not possess.
Also evident from his high school tape was his drive for the ball and willingness to make the little plays. It says something that a play where he dove to the floor to tap a ball into the path of his teammate was on his highlight film. Of all the plays on that video, that was the one that really sealed it for me. The heart and hustle, the quick recognition and decision-making, and the deft touch during a violent movement evident in that play are all the elements of a successful Bennett player.
Look for Badocchi to be a good defender this year and grow into an elite one during his time here. Expect him to be an elite ball winner from day one. He also has quick offensive moves and is an efficient finisher near the basket. He has the tools to be an effective blocker in the base offense who will be able to set the screens then roll to the basket and convert on the opportunities the defenses give him.
Jump shot. Badocchi's form when he arrived was not pretty. He had very little range. In high school he was strictly an around the basket scorer. Developing a jump shot is item number one on Frankie's skills development plan. Word is that he worked extremely hard at it and his form is noticeably improved. Whether that holds up under fire remains to be seen. But judging from the history of Bennett's big men at UVA, don't expect to see Badocchi try it in games very often. Big men shooting jumpers is not a major feature of Virginia offense, even for those who come to the program with a reputation as a good shooter. With the limited number of shots available in the offense and players like Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, De'Andre Hunter and other past Hoo perimeter players on the floor, a post player trying out his three-point shot or worse his mid-range jumper is just not a high priority look. Along with the questionable jump shot, it remains unknown how good Francesco's face-up game will be. He did show some drives in the highlights, but we'll have to see what he will do in college games.
Understanding of the game and acclimation to the speed of major college basketball. This is the same issue every international player faces. At this point we don't know if this is truly a weakness for Frankie, or if an "Unknown" would be a better category for it.
Finally, from reports we've received out of summer workouts, assertiveness on offense is something we will be watching very carefully. Our spies have reported that it is difficult to evaluate how he is doing because he doesn't stand out. He does not frequently assert himself offensively, being content to defer to the more established players. This deference is one of the traits of the Bennett program. In many ways, due deference is a strength for a player and for a team, but on the court in an offense when plays are to be made, it can be a detriment. Jeff Jones often hurt the Ralph Sampson teams with his unwillingness to shoot from the top of the key when defenses pitched their tents around Ralph's knees, and Isaiah's reticence to shoot the ball at times hamstrung his teams on the offensive end. On the other hand, with guys like Jerome, Guy and Hunter out there, having a player who doesn't feel the need to take his shot can help an offense's chemistry. Devon Hall was a great example of a player who for the first three playing years deferred to more established scorers but was also willing to make his moves.
The uncertainties in the roster make it difficult to forecast Badocchi's role. We do know that Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite will be the first two posts in the rotation. Will the perimeter rotation allow De'Andre Hunter to play substantial post minutes? If so, Hunter could end up being the third post in terms of minutes. If Braxton Key is eligible, he could wind up getting minutes at the post. Virginia could spend serious time with Jerome, Guy, Hunter and Key on the floor together. The above scenarios would mean little opportunity for a third or especially fourth true post. Francesco will be competing with Jay Huff for that third true post position. Frankie's ace in the hole in that competition is that he might already be a more reliable Packline defender than Huff. If so, that gives him the inside track in the playing time race. Given the way big men are used in Virginia's base offense, Huff's outside shooting advantage over Badocchi is of little consequence, and Frankie likely gives up nothing in terms of setting screens, rolling to the basket and converting, finishing around the rim, etc. If Bennett can put Frankie on the court and trust him to execute the Packline correctly, hedge screens and recover, and switch onto guards, that's going to make him more valuable in Bennett's eyes than a guy for whom he needs to "tweak the defense."
Another way Frankie could end up getting more PT than otherwise expected is in a super-small lineup. We could see Bennett play Badocchi, Key and Hunter at the same time, with Frankie playing the 5 role. On offense he would set screens and remain near the basket. On defense, he would match up with the opposing 5. It would give the Hoos a front line that is virtually indistinguishable physically. All of them are 6-7, 6-8 with long arms and excellent athleticism. The Hoos would be able to play the same switching defense as last season.
So, Badocchi could end up as the #3 true post in the rotation, but how much playing time that translates into will be impacted by what happens in the perimeter rotation. If some combination of Clark, Anthony and Stattmann can give more than just "get Ty, Kyle and Dre's tongues off the floor" minutes, those minutes could eat into what are available for the #3 and 4 posts, because they will free up Dre and Braxton to play minutes at the 4.
Like everything else, reasonable expectations for Badocchi are impacted by the Braxton Key decision. If Key is eligible, expect Frankie to see fewer than ten minutes per game, because I expect Tony to rely almost exclusively on the five starters and Key. Without Key, you have to figure that almost 30 minutes per game are out there for Badocchi and Jay Huff to command. Ideally, Tony probably wants to see both Mamadi and Jack on the floor 30 minutes per game, but neither of them has yet shown the ability to get above 25 minutes due to fouls. Even if both play 30, that still leaves 20 minutes per game that need to be filled. My expectation is for Frankie to get most of those, because Tony is going to prefer having his defense to having Huff's offense.
For a redshirt freshman international player, the optimistic expectations are not much different than the realistic expectations outlined above. Think the same minutes range, but in the optimistic scenario, Frankie is good for a couple baskets a night on his own offense in addition to what he gets by simply being near the rim when the guards pass it there. He's not going to become a starter. Third big is his ceiling this year, and that comes with 15-20 minutes per game.
Also, what is "optimistic" for Frankie may not be "optimistic" for UVA. If he is at the top of his minutes range it likely means Key is ineligible, and that is not UVA's optimistic outlook.
While Badocchi has considerable upside potential, he has a long way to go to get there. That is the good and the bad. If he can give UVA a freshman year similar to Isaiah Wilkins - double-digit minutes in 15 games with good defense and a lot of hustle - it will be a positive comntribution. If the Hoos end up needing more than that from him, we're in trouble.