I've been awfully enthusiastic about Kihei Clark in the past. I said he'd be a quick crowd favorite. This site's own basketball preview saw basically all its authors say something incredibly positive. Or multiple somethings. He might have simultaneously been the most and least underrated recruit of the Tony Bennett era. You can only be the sneaky good dark horse for so long before you become one of the favorites.
On Wednesday, Clark played four more minutes in a hostile building against a top-25 opponent than Ty Jerome.
If you expected that before the season, no you didn't. Tony tried to tell us. All summer he had glowing things to say about Clark. We all figured that meant 12-15 good minutes a game. He'd play defense (the perimeter players in this D have it a easier than the bigs) and not get in Kyle Guy's way on offense. Instead he'll probably play 30 minutes in every game from here to March unless the opponent stinks.
What's the deal? Some guys get ahead on their freakish athleticism, or their deadeye jump shot, or their towering size. Clark gets there on elite basketball sense. It's plain to see how easy the game comes to him. He knows when to zip around like a fly and when to play it calm. In Jerome's freshman year it was clear he had a real sense of what to do with the ball in the middle of a drive. Clark has the same awareness, and can stick a pass right where the recipient wants it - whether said recipient is six or seven feet tall. It's a very small sample size, but he appears capable of hitting threes with enough consistency to force some respect. And though his finishing skills came under question as a recruit, it's also plain he's learned some ways to twist himself into a shooting position out of necessity among the trees. That's a more refined skill than was advertised.
The comparisons to London Perrantes are natural: an undersized (and therefore underrecruited) point guard out of California who immediately jumps into Tony's circle of trust and plays major minutes right out of the gate. But that's just about it for the similarities. London made the game work for him by slowing it down on purpose. Kihei lets the game speed up a little and adapts to whatever it seems to be doing at the time. (Except when he forces the issue on defense.) London preferred to find guys coming off screens; Kihei will attack more. They have similar backgrounds, but they're far from the same player.
For this year, Clark is almost the ideal point guard. You might worry a little bit about what a freshman might do in March, but a 5'9"-on-stilts basketball player is used to things that are bigger than him. Clark is letting Jerome play off the ball and become a full-blown scorer, and the best part is that Ty's biggest asset as a point guard is his ability to attack and make the right decision on the fly - which is something Clark can do as well, so the offense makes no sacrifice by taking the ball out of Ty's hands initially. Minimal trade-offs.
What about the future? One thing about guys who come in as ready as Clark has: they're often close to their ceiling already. This was the case with Perrantes, and it caused occasional fanbase grumbling that London needed to evolve his game, speed it up, get better, etc. Much the same thing could happen here. But Clark is a more exciting player, and anyway I was never real interested in the grumbles about London's game. Maybe - or almost certainly - some weaknesses in Clark's game will become clearer as the season goes on. Maybe a team like Duke exposes some limitations. But the main thing about the future is crystal clear: we have a point guard for the next four seasons. Zion Williamson will play 25-30 more games for Duke and dunk a lot and put his insane athleticism on display; Kihei Clark will play over 120 for UVA and put to use a basketball awareness that is as elite as Williamson's hops.