Will Braxton Key play? That was the question banging around all our brains as "The Bounce Back" went to press. It was the biggest variable that would influence the playing time calculus.
But Key's was only one uncertainty bedeviling the roster as the new season approaches. It was just the most immediate, and for this season the most impactful. Other uncertainties have potential impacts on next season or even beyond. Some of these uncertainties are normal for Virginia Basketball; others are entirely new territory. Will there be injuries? Who fits the offensive and defensive systems better, and will the coaches alter a system to benefit a player whose skills in other areas are needed? Who might end up declaring for the draft at the end of the season?
The Key Decision
The biggest variable for playing time decisions by far was the NCAA's decision on the Key waiver. We know for certain the top 5 players. Jack Salt will start in the post with Mamadi Diakite. De'Andre Hunter will be on the wing. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome will be the guards. That's a lineup with three bona fide All-American candidates. Most likely, they will all play so well that they will "split the Virginia vote" and none of them will make All-American. We can also say with virtual certainty that Jerome and Guy will play a minimum of 35 mpg in ACC games and 32 mpg overall. Hunter will be within five minutes per game of those two. Salt and Diakite will be expected to play 25-30 minutes per game, and it will be up to them to manage their fouls to achieve that range. If they don't, the team is going to struggle.
If you've been using your fingers and toes at home, you know that adds up to 150 minutes out of a 200 minute game. What happens with that other 50 minutes depended almost entirely on what the NCAA did.
With Braxton Key
Pencil Key in for starter minutes. As a freshman at Alabama two years ago, he played 30 minutes per game and was on the SEC All-Freshman team, so we know he can handle it. Good thing, because he's going to play 30-35 minutes per game. The gulf between these six players and everybody else is that wide. That means that Tony only has to find 15 minutes per game from a group of players with a combined 30 minutes of ACC time. Most of those will probably come from Kihei Clark, who apparently is quite far ahead of his benchmates at impressing the coaches.
If Clark can play 8 minutes per game, then Jerome can get his rest and Guy can get most of his rest without those two having to cover for each other. It maximizes their time together in their primary roles. Key will cover most of the frontcourt minutes, as he and the three starters will be used interchangeably. Only spot minutes will be needed from Jay Huff, Francesco Badocchi, Kody Stattmann and Marco Anthony. From information slipping past the Bennett Internal Security Service, we project Huff and Stattmann as the leaders for those few frontcourt minutes. In this context, 'frontcourt' refers to the traditional forwards-center alignment, and Stattmann obviously would be getting his few minutes at small forward. Like most, we had assumed that Stattmann would redshirt if Key got the waiver, but that is not a safe assumption. The team is still not deep, and his three-point shooting could still get him spot minutes here and there. This becomes especially pertinent later in the article.
Staple lineups will be the starting lineup, and a max-offense lineup of Diakite in the post, Key and Hunter at the forwards, and Guy and Jerome at guard. I would expect those two lineups to account for over half the game, allowing the coaches to pretty much keep the system stable from last year and plug Diakite and Key in for Wilkins and Hall - with Clark taking Nigel Johnson's role. We'll call the Diakite-Key-Hunter-Guy-Jerome lineup "the Finishing Lineup," as that almost certainly will be the case.
Perhaps the third most oft-used lineup will have Key subbing for Hunter, although only Guy and Jerome are three-point threats in that lineup.
Take Key out of the picture and it becomes difficult to avoid the conclusion that Tony needs to make some changes in how he chooses to defend, because he's simply going to have to rely for important minutes on players who cannot be forecasted to succeed in the 2017-18 model of Packline. Even in a game where Jerome, Guy and Hunter all play 40 minutes, you're going to have to put in a 5-9 true freshman, a true freshman whose defense has not drawn rave reviews, a redshirt freshman international player, or a player who has apparently been passed by true freshmen because his defense is not up to standards.
If Key does not play, add five minutes per game to your estimates for the five starters. Guy and Jerome 37 to 40, Hunter 35 to 40, and an expectation of 30 from both Salt and Diakite. Clark becomes your sixth man and probably plays 15 minutes, because if Tony has to rely on a player he can't quite trust, he's going to over-rely on the one he can trust more than the others. He's going to like Clark's competitiveness and distributing ability, and Clark does have one defensive strength that Tony can use.
Clearly, without Key, Bennett will be hoping that Clark can prove like London Perrantes did that he's ready to be a major player on an ACC team as a freshman, and that Stattmann can emulate Joe Harris. While Clark and Stattmann won't have to play 30 minutes a game like their forerunners did, 15-20 minutes of quality ball would be a difference maker.
Fortunately, we do not face this scenario. However, it is still a useful exercise to go through because it informs the evaluation of what the coaches will face if....
The Elephant Trampling the Room
Jack Salt has played through back pain the last couple of seasons. Ty Jerome dealt with bum wheels for most of last season. Kyle Guy twisted his knee in the last regular season game and played the ACC Tournament with a knee brace. All are reminders that in the snap of a finger a key player can be lost to injury.
If the above assemblage of aches and pains is the worst that befalls Virginia this year, the Hoos are going to win a lot of games. Maybe as many as last year - maybe even more. But what if it isn't? What if a major player - or God forbid two - goes down for a significant stretch of games? What then?
Jerome is the player Virginia can least afford to lose. Anybody else goes down, and Key steps into the starting lineup and all you're worried about is bench minutes. But Jerome is the only experienced point guard on the roster. None of the other starters is ideally suited to fill his role. Having Kyle Guy play Jerome's role slashes his opportunities to be the ACC's best flyer off screens. Jerome is the captain of the ship and probably Virginia's best basketball player. He's poised to be the heart and soul of the team. Losing that would be catastrophic. On the other hand, if Clark is indeed the next Harold Deane as it appears at this point he might be, then he is the most likely to be able to provide a quality replacement. Still, if Clark is going to be getting 30 mpg in relief of an injured player, it would be much better for him to be doing that next to Ty Jerome than in place of him. From this point of view, Kyle Guy would be your most recoverable (I do not want to say expendable or replaceable or any other ghoulish term) loss, as subbing Clark for Guy creates the least size anomaly. Clark for Hunter, for example, would lead to a very small backcourt and require some real creativity out of Coach Bennett.
In any scenario where Kihei Clark is stepping into the starting lineup due to injury, that means Marco Anthony has to be able to play - especially if Jerome is on training table. Clark becomes the only point guard, and Anthony the only sub guard. Hunter could drop into the guard rotation with Stattmann stepping forward. If one or two wings were to go down, Stattmann probably has to be pressed into service.
You have to think that if one of the three perimeter starters goes down that pressure gets bigger to get Jay Huff on the floor. At some point, you need offense and Huff is a gifted offensive player. He seems well positioned to provide quality relief for either Salt or Diakite if they go down.
This quick rundown makes it pretty obvious how big a difference Braxton Key makes. With Key, the Hoos can absorb one injury before approaching "bring in the bartenders" status. Without him... well, we don't have to think about that anymore.
Tweaking the System?
For the past three months, as I tried to project the potential contributions of particular players, I kept coming back to the impact strategy will have on who can contribute - or the impact who has to contribute might have on the strategy. My thoughts pulled out of a grab bag:
Jay Huff appears still to be struggling with the defense. If his offense becomes too important, does Bennett morph the defense into a different man-to-man paradigm that simplifies things for Huff and protects him from having to leave the paint area? If so, how does that impact the demands on the other players?
When I think of Kihei Clark in a heavy switching defense, I get palpitations from the thought of him getting switched onto R.J. Barrett or Tyus Battle. When I think of him locking up some of the mistake-prone point guards in the league, I smile with malicious glee. Does Bennett want to stick with the advantages of the switching d and try to make do with Clark, or does he go back to basics where you fight through screens? Given what I've heard from the scrimmages, this might be what I am most eager to see.
How do we best take advantage of Dre Hunter's abilities? He figures to play more mover than blocker this year, but I still think a spread floor is the best offense for him. Could we replicate a Villanova offense with Huff, Hunter and Key in the frontcourt?
If we have to rely on multiple bench players on the floor at the same time for significant stretches, I think we will see the Packline at its most zone-like.
Handicapping the Pros
We all assume that De'Andre Hunter will be entering the NBA draft after this season. We know he might not be the only one. Who might go? In descending probability order, here are my guesses:
De'Andre Hunter - 90% - Initially, I wanted to say 99%, but there are just too many things that might happen, so rather than tempt the fates to show me what they can do, I'll acknowledge them and beg for favor.
Kyle Guy - 60% - This one is a hunch. Maybe Kyle's not the most likely to get drafted by the NBA, but there's significant money in Europe for a player of his skill who is about to be a husband. I have one source who keeps bringing up Guy, not ever saying that he's heard anything, but it still makes me think.
Ty Jerome - 50% - Highly likely that Ty gets a late first-early second round grade after this season, and if that happens, it's 70-90% (70 for early second, 90 for mid first grade) that he goes.
Jay Huff - 15% - What? Look, if it does come to pass that Huff gets serious minutes this year, chances are pretty good he is going to show some NBA scouts that he is a 7-1 player with long arms and a nasty attitude who gets up and down the court swiftly, gets off the court, can shoot the three, has ball skills, and has very good agility and dexterity. He just feels like a fit for what the NBA wants in a big today. This 15% grade is a factor of the fairly low likelihood that he does get those kinds of minutes this year and the great fit he is for what the NBA looks for.
Mamadi Diakite - 10% - Like Jay, Mamadi has the basic tools that makes the NBA guys drool. However, he lacks Jay's array of offensive skills. He'll get more chance to show what he can do, but I think while an NBA scout will look at Huff and see a player, he'll look at Diakite and see a project.
Braxton Key - 2% - Key is a top-50 talent who should be considered an eventual NBA prospect. If he plays 30 minutes a game this year, could it be this spring?
Let's look at it another way:
At least one player leaves - 95% - Again, let's not tempt the fates.
At least two players leave - 65% - I just think it's very likely we're going to have two players in next year's draft.
At least three players leave - 30% - Take Hunter (90%), Guy (60%) and Jerome (50%) and math says 27% chance. Add three percent for the other guys. Yes, I think there is a good chance we will be replacing three non-senior starters after this season.
At least four players leave - 4% - That 27% multiplied by 15% gets you to 4%.
Enjoy this season, Wahoos. This is very likely the 2016 class's swan song.