When Austin Nichols was kicked off the 2016-17 team, the redshirt for Jay Huff was briefly reconsidered. Player and coach went for long-term development over short-term needs and stuck with the plan. Huff spent the year bulking up. When he first put the red shirt on, he was a 6-11, 215-pound kid who was a Raggedy Andy doll amongst pit bulls in practice. At weigh-in the following year, he was a 7-1, 230-pound NBA prospect. Expectations that had risen with his recruiting rankings during senior year of high school remained sky high. Then he hit the floor for the first time when Austin Peay visited the JPJ and appeared to announce his arrival with a dominant performance.
But the season did not play out that way. After that game, he would not hit another three all season, but he also only had five more attempts spread out over four games. Never again did he top 20 minutes, and only against lower-tier non-conference opponents did he hit double digit minutes. He saw no meaningful game action in ACC play.
Poor defense happened. Huff could not function in the Packline. His hedge-and-recover game was poor. He tried to block everything and ended up taking himself out of plays. He didn't grasp rotations. With a team grounded on a historically good defense, the coach didn't feel comfortable putting him on the floor even with his offensive skills.
Jay's fall from grace wasn't quite as precipitous as it looked from the outside, however. Coach Bennett told us in a press conference after the regular season was over that there were times late in the season that he looked down the bench at Jay and almost put him in. Huff was getting better in practice and showing things that made Coach start to see him as an option. It was a step. Then De'Andre Hunter was ruled out for the NCAA Tournament, and Jay Huff entered the game plan. He was going to be part of the rotation. He was going to be part of the team's adjustment to Hunter's injury.
Then he hurt his shoulder in practice the day before the game. Bennett scratched him from the game plan. A few days later when the team arrived back home, an MRI revealed a torn labrum. Surgery and rehab were next.
The injury was a learning experience for Huff. "I was spoiled [before the injury]. I could shoot every day, and I didn't," Huff told Jeff White in a June 19, 2018 article. "I didn't take advantage of it as much as I wish I had. Now, as soon as my arm gets better, I'm going to be getting as many shots up as I can, because I couldn't for a long time." According to White, "Huff said he plans to use extra film study with the coaching staff to improve his understanding of the game and the Cavaliers' system."
The time lost to injury further obfuscates what were already uncertain prospects for Huff this season. Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite will be the first two posts in the rotation. After that, nothing is clear. Huff and redshirt freshman Francesco Badocchi are the other returning post players. They will compete for the third post spot, which in previous years would have assured a player a big role. Now, though, with Hunter having had success as a wing 4 and the coaches hoping to recreate that success this year, and with the addition of Braxton Key, another combo forward like Hunter, being the "third post" might not mean so much. How many minutes will Hunter/Key take? What will be left over? So much is unknown about this Cavaliers team that projection is difficult.
What He Brings
The thing about Huff is that he remains a potential NBA prospect, because he brings everything we all talked about before last season. He's still 7-1 and long with good agility. He gets up and down the floor. He's competitive and plays with an edge. He has a diverse offensive skill set that includes finishing around the rim and on the run, back-to-the-basket moves, face-up drives and the three-point shot. He's a player that you could conceivably build an offense around, and with his skill set he should be able to play off of the abilities of the other players and diversify the offense.
But it's not just on the offensive end where he brings positives that can impact a game. Although over-eager, he is a good shotblocker. With his height and wingspan he is an imposing figure in the paint. He also is a good rebounder because he uses his height and long arms to his advantage. He grabs the ball.
What I Would Like To See More
Jay Huff? Because of how many games the Hoos won and the way they cruised through the conference tournament, we forget that there were some ugly, ugly offensive performances in that run. There were games that could have been losses. Virginia scored fewer than 60 points in seven games. Huff could help the offense to be more consistent and break through those poor performances.
With Jay in the game, I would like to see high ball screens on every possession. Use his multiple skills to read and attack the defense. He can pop for the three, roll for the dish, or relocate. Both Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy had good success using high ball screens last season, success that should be amplified when a true offensive threat is setting the screen.
From Jay, I would like to see quicker decision-making in the defense, but I would also like to see him used where he is not being asked to hedge screens out on the perimeter. Bennett eventually tweaked the defense with Tobey to keep him within the free throw line area flat hedging screens and using his size to prevent the ball handler from turning the corner and getting downhill. It kept Tobey from being pulled out into the weeds from where he struggled to recover. Huff has a similar issue and is a defensive force in the lane who should stay in the lane. The last time Duke had an effective man-to-man defense was when they had the last Plumlee play a one-man zone while the other four players pushed the man-to-man defense out high and funneled penetration at Plumlee. Something along these lines could enable Huff not only to be on the floor and impact the offense, but to also be a positive force on defense.
What I Would Like To See Less
It's going to be all about defense here, of course. Yes, Jay can block shots (14 in 12 games), but he doesn't have to try to block every single shot. I would like to see less of Jay Huff committing to the shot block; instead staying on the floor. He's 7-1 with long arms. Master verticality and he's hella tough to shoot over. Once he masters verticality and develops better judgment of what shots are blockable, then he can start going after more. This was probably a bigger reason for his lack of playing time than the ball screen defense because it resulted in both a high foul rate and a lot of easy opportunities for the opponent.
As I said above, I would like to see less of Huff hedging high ball screens.
What role Jay will play this season is just so hard to forecast. If you listen to Jason Williford, you could be led to expect Jay to play a much larger role this season.
But if you go by Tony Bennett precedent, there will be no giving on defense for the sake of getting an offensive player on the floor. He will go with the player who makes the defense better and live with stagnant offensive possessions and late clock heroics by his guards. Precedent says that if Francesco Badocchi is a more reliable Packline defender and grasps the hedging and rotations better, he will move ahead of Jay in the rotation despite not having Huff's three-point ability and imposing height.
So much will depend on how Bennett decides to craft his offense and defense. We've heard that he is enamored of the Villanova offense, which would feature only one player in the post area, a more spread set, and dribble drive initiating the attacks more often. Huff would thrive here with his ability to use his size in the post, but also to come high and set screens or set up on the arc if one of the other players gets a matchup he can exploit in the paint. If Bennett wants to play the heavy switching defense of last season or the hard hedge/post double system he originally made notorious, Huff is a poor fit and I can't see him getting much playing time. A defense where players are expected to fight through screens and maintain matchups and the five man stays in the paint will benefit both Huff and Kihei Clark, both of whom are suceptible to poor matchups in a switching defense.
Jay Huff remains the Unicorn. He is still a potential NBA prospect. His personal development and Bennett's strategic decisions will determine how much of that we see this season (or ever). If Jay follows through on his intent to implement a more rigorous work ethic and improves his game, it will be easier to convince Bennett to make the tweaks Williford hinted at. Huff continues to tantalize with dreams of what he might be able to do. Still only a sophomore, it's time to start showing those things in meaningful minutes.