It's been nearly two months since UVA cut down the nets and UVA basketball is in a state of flux.
That's putting it mildly.
The days following the National Championship celebration saw four UVA stars with remaining college eligibility declare for the NBA Draft. There were a lot of semi-complicated, shifting rules surrounding those declarations: what formalities they had to follow, what they could and couldn't accept from an agent, deadlines, etc. Seattle and Valentine recapped a lot of these rules in an excellent, must-listen Podcast which you can find here (link). But ultimately three followed through with their declarations while Mamadi held out until the 11th hour before withdrawing for one last year in Charlottesville.
I want to talk more specifically about the individual players making these decisions and what it means for the program.
The first to declare was De'Andre Hunter, who has been a fixture of 1st-round Draft boards all season long, and did nothing but solidify his position in the Lottery with a big performance on the college game's biggest stage. His announcement was a foregone conclusion, and he never even hinted that he might leave the door open to return to school; in a couple weeks he'll hear his his name called in New York City, almost certainly in the single digits.
Next was Ty Jerome. Ty has been popping up on draft boards since last summer when he wowed pro scouts at Chris Paul's invite-only elite point guard camp. Some casual observers initially dismissed his pro potential for lazy reasons, almost entirely superficial, ignoring the fact that he's one of the most well-rounded players in college basketball. He shoots, he finishes in traffic, he has next-level floor vision and decision making, and he's a leader and a winner. Some NBA team is going to want a Day-1 Ready backup combo guard, the same way the Bucks did in 2016 when they took Malcolm Brogdon, and Ty will find himself with the opportunity to play key rotational minutes for a playoff team. He's probably a late first rounder, and at worst an early 2nd rounder. Either way he'll get a guaranteed 7-figure contract and get to work right away on building his career.
Kyle Guy was the 3rd player to announce his pro intentions while originally stating his openness to a potential return. That changed a week afterwards when he stated that after further consideration, he was 100% out the door. There are plenty of hot-takes about whether this makes sense for Kyle, and there are arguments to be had either way. Maybe another year in Charlottesville would've given him a chance to play more point guard, a position in the pros where his size won't be such a disadvantage. Or maybe without Ty and Dre to draw defensive attention, his efficiency drops and with it his draft stock. Or maybe he plateaus but gets a year older, which to NBA GMs, is a black mark. We'll talk more on this below, but I do think Kyle has a chance to get grabbed in the 2nd round; Bryn Forbes is proving there's a path for undersized 2-guards to play a major role in the NBA with the right skill sets; worst case he ends up a priority undrafted free agent. Drafted or not (we're rooting for "drafted"), he'll have the opportunity to catch on with a G-League program and fill up box scores as a developmental prospect, grinding his way towards the big league before all is said and done. The G-League isn't the shame it once was (more on that below as well), now truly embraced as an opportunity to develop future pros much like baseball's AAA level. The honest truth is that even if Kyle had stayed another year, his draft stock wasn't likely to change.
Mamadi Diakite was the last to declare. He had a great postseason and displayed the energy, touch, and instinctual defensive presence that are going to have a lot of NBA teams keeping a close eye on him. He's definitely got NBA upside, always has, though being late to basketball left him with a steep learning curve. The NBA loves upside, and they're confident that their coaches, whether in the G-League or the bigs, can unlock it once a kid is done being "distracted" by school and limited by NCAA practice caps. It wasn't crazy that a pro club might decide Mamadi is worth an investment, that he could be a rotational NBA player sooner rather than later under their tutelage.
Couple all of this with the departure of Marco Anthony to transfer, who will try and find a better fit at the C-USA level (school still TBD), and the graduation of Jack Salt, and we're looking at five of our eleven eligble players from last year not returning, most of them core members of the rotation. It's a big pill to swallow.
My intention here is not, however, to talk about what's left, what the coming season or seasons might look like with the next generation of 'Hoo hoopsters; Seattle is covering that and you can read it here: (link). Instead I want to look deeper at those departing for the pros.
First some notes on the G-League
We mentioned above the likelihood that some of these departees will go to the G-League to start their careers, maybe after being drafted, maybe as undrafted free agents. As I peruse comments on message boards and Twitter, I can see a lot of people have some outdated views on the G-League (formerly the D-League, which was short for developmental).
The G-League is not just some dumping ground for has-beens and wannabes. It's a minor league. It's the NBA's equivalent of AAA baseball. And plenty of good players on NBA contracts have worked their way up from the G-League over the years, some quickly, others over the course of a couple of years. In fact, over half the players on NBA rosters this year have G-League experience (source: link). The NBA invests a lot of money into the G-League to take players with rough potential and actually give them the space to develop, full time, under the careful guidance of professionals.
And for some young players, that's better than being in college. Now, I said "some," not "all" (more below). That's up to each individual player to decide. But there's a very real argument that the G-League can give you a better developmental pathway than college for a few reasons. 1) The G-League has no NCAA-mandated practice time caps. They can put in 40+ hours a week with their coaches and trainers if they want. 2) Not being in school means not having your time split by class and homework, leaving more time to focus on your craft if you've got the discipline. 3) The G-League coaches will put you into your future pro role, not your "helps your team win games" college role... for Mamadi this might mean getting to work on his 3-point shot more in game situations than he would at UVA. It's like an AAA baseball coach letting a young pitcher work on his curve ball even if it means a couple rough innings, because they prioritize development over immediate winning.
It's far better than the old model of drafting a high upside prospect and then sitting him at the end of the bench where he collects rust.
Will being in the G-League as opposed to the ACC mean way less time on national TV and in other media.. yes, but who cares? Guys like Mamadi and Kyle are trying to maximize their future pro potential, not reap immediate publicity. They want to improve their games so that they can, one day, get the best possible pro contract. Mamadi dreams to use that money for philanthropic purposes (he's said he wants to invest in development in his native Guinea) to say nothing of potentially one day starting his own family and taking care of them. Being on TV is like maybe the 20th most important factor in this decision.
As for getting a contract or getting drafted, the NBA loves to "draft and stash" kids; they have a whole class of solid contract options for young developmental guys who need to spend a year or so in the G-League but ultimately have NBA potential. It's no different than MLB who will draft, sign, and pay kids and then work them up through the minors. There's a very real chance Mamadi or Kyle ultimately get drafted and signed based on Year 2 or Year 3 potential.
Yes some guys go to the G-League to be role players, the NBA never really seeing them as long term pro prospects. Those guys collect a steady paycheck, provide a good locker room presence, do a little traveling. Plenty of minor league ball players never get past the end of the AAA bench either. But others go as what I'll call "preferred prospects," guys who the scouts see true NBA upside in their game and are willing to let them be minor-league studs for a little while on the company dime because they truly believe in their future. We'll find out soon enough if Guy is going to be that guy for some pro club, and perhaps Mamadi a year from now.
So no, going to the G-League is not a dumb decision. It's possibly a very practical decision depending on circumstances, depending on feedback from NBA GM's and their willingness to invest in a long term asset.
Now, earlier I said the G-League is a better choice for some prospects than for others, but what are those situations?
1) Does the player have the potential to grow into an NBA player? If not, if the guy is simply never going to be a NBA'er due to whatever limitations in size, athleticism, mechanics... then the kid has to recognize he's not going to be long for the NBA developmental system. Maybe they can be a role player and clubhouse vet on the G-League roster, but they'll make more money going overseas, and might as well finish out their college eligibility first. But if they do have that NBA potential, then the G-League is specifically designed to help them realize it.
2) Does the player have the maturity to thrive "on his own" in the real world, or is he better off in the regimented structure of a college program, where so much of his life is pre-programmed and he's arguably got more accountability? Once you're a professional, even in the G-League, there's an expectation you can handle your own business like a grown up, which could include a sizeable paycheck you may be tempted to blow through. Some kids have more maturity than others to handle this change in environment.
3) What kind of college coaching situation is he leaving behind? We're spoiled by Bennet, Curtis, and the rest. Not every college situation has that kind of instructional, fundamental, and development program. For some kids, the pro coaches are simply going to be a quantum leap in quality from the "players' coaches" they're leaving behind.
4) What kind of competition level is he getting away from? Iron sharpens iron, and the player has to weight the quality of his teammates and opponents. In the G-League, everyone was an all-conference talent, and you get to both practice against and play against that top almost-pro-quality competition every minute you're on the court. If you truly believe that better opponents and teammates help you grow into a better player, than the G-League is definitely going to be better than a mid-major, and maybe even better than a lot of high-majors from that perspective.
5) How does their college coach plan to use them? If the player has weak areas they need to develop for the pro game but their college's systems don't require that skill set, they may not get a chance to refine those skill sets in college. Think of a player at a 2-3 Zone school who wants to work on his iso-man defense, or a big man with a raw shooting stroke that needs game reps that his college coach isn't comfortable showcasing.
We Hoos have watched Joe Harris climb from G-League regular to playoff starter and very well may be seeing some of this class of Hoos do the same in the years to come.
I mentioned above that De'Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome ultimately were no-brainers. They had crystal clear feedback that they were not only peaking as draftable prospects, but also very safe bets to get guaranteed contracts this summer.
Kyle and Mamadi had decision processes that were far more debatable, with a careful balancing act involved of what kind of draft chances they had this year, what their odds of improving that draft stock was with another year in college. And frankly, it's hard for us to judge because we don't know what kind of feedback both are getting from NBA clubs.
For Kyle, the NBA Draft Combine invite seemed to be a tipping point. That essentially put him in the top 60-80 of prospects, meaning he stood a good chance of getting his name called at some point in the Draft, and even worst case scenario he was going to be a highly sought after undrafted free agent. If, on average, a team is taking two players in the draft, Kyle as a top UDFA would effectively be a team's 3rd draft pick. And frankly, if he does go undrafted, he and his agent will get to be a little selective about what roster he lands with, potentially choosing a franchise that has a better developmental program, a clearly path through the depth chart, and/or runs systems into which Kyle can best fit.
The bottom line is that Kyle's draft profile is as good as it's going to get. He's a 6'2" shooting guard with good but not elite ability to get into the lane. To me the biggest factor in Kyle's draftability was projecting his ability to play point guard. He's never been more than the 3rd option as an offense-initiator at Virginia, with London, Devon, Ty, and most recently Kihei all ahead of him as point guards in the offense; as such he's never even been asked to do much as a ball-dominant creator. Was next year going to be any different? Probably not. Kihei is still the starting PG, and Woldetensae will take on a Devon Hall role as a big shooting combo while the secondary floor general. Kyle maybe could've used the increased defensive attention on him (without defenders as scared of Hunter and Jerome) as an opportunity to press help defenders and find the open man for an incremental assist boost. But to the NBA, that wasn't going to change their mind about his being a lead guard. No, Kyle is being true to himself, and he's a shooting guard through and through. That's why another year wasn't going to turn him into more of a sure-thing.
So for Kyle, the decision became more of a personal one, weighing his professional goals against his personal ones. He said way back in 2016 at the McDonald's All-American Game that he wanted to be a professional basketball player sooner rather than later, that he didn't envision himself as a four year letterman; a college degree wasn't a presiding goal. With his wedding upcoming this summer, and with some of his best friends in Jerome and Hunter moving on to the pros, Kyle simply felt this was the right next step at the right time that he wanted to take in life. Part of it is a basketball decision; his stock wasn't going to go up, and in fact there's real risk it goes down with a senior slump or an injury. The rest of it is a life decision. And we just have to respect that, or at a minimum accept it.
Diakite's decision was different, in that he's not someone who's relatively plateaued as a college player like arguably Kyle Guy. Diakite's raw gifts are evident for all to see, but as been much discussed, he was a late arrival to basketball. Most of his peers have been playing basketball since elementary school. Diakite picked it up as a high schooler. That means while his peers were perfecting their form, or adding moves or turning their decision making into reflex, Diakite was just learning the fundamentals of form and scheme. He's been playing catch up for years now, and it's a true testament to his work ethic, natural talent, and the quality coaching he's received that he's been an ACC-level player these last couple of years.
It also means that there's value to be gained from another year at UVA. Diakite got a G-League Camp invite indicating some early pro curiosities, but his performance there left room for improvement. It didn't surprise me, in that he's a player who's better suited for a structured environment with established chemistry with his teammates; the G-League camp offered him neither. What was encouraging, however, was that he continued to get workout invites aftewards, being flown to California for private auditions with both the Warriors and the Kings in late May. That means that NBA scouts see plenty of potential in him and up until the last few days before the decision deadline they were weighing whether to advise him to enter the G-League developmental pipeline.
Again, I'm obviously not privy to discussions, so I can only speculate on where the scouts' views settled. But what makes sense to me is that while they do see a future NBA player, they think he's still a couple years away. If you're an NBA club, why are you going to sign him to a developmental deal for a couple years only to see him potentially break through just in time for him to be a free agent and have a rival club sign him and reap the rewards? I see those same clubs wanting to sign him a year from now instead when his expected G-League tenure is reduced to maybe a year or so, and they can bet on some big league upside while he's still on his rookie deal. The alternative was going to Europe and getting developed there, but again I think he benefits most from the structure in Charlottesville, GM's recognizing the value Bennett and his staff adds. It's why he probably got the "go back to Charlottesville for one more year" advice from the clubs he candidly spoke with.
Of course there was probably a personal angle in this one, as Mamadi's been at UVA for four years, in Charlottesville for seven (he prepped at Blue Ridge school just down the road), and sometimes at that age you just want to go do something new. I knew after my four years at UVA, despite my deep love for the school, I was just ready to get on with the next phase of my life. He's going to get to finish his degree, which is great, but he'll also miss his long-term running mates in Jack, Kyle, De'Andre, and Ty... the latter three all of whom arrived after him and are now leaving before him. It speaks to his discipline and maturity that despite the likely desire to move on with the rest of his cohort, he's making the prudent decision to continue to work on his craft for one final season.
And for those that wanted to nit-pick his waiting until the final hour to pull out of the draft, recall he was getting evaluated by pro scouts up until that final day. Every workout with the pros was a valuable feedback opportunity, and you can't blame him at all for wanting to make the most of it.
The Recruiting Impact
Who likes recruiting great basketball players? I know I do. Pretty sure Coach Bennett does as well, given the Who's Who of former five stars he's pursued at one time or another in past years. And you know what dream great basketball prospects almost all share? Making it to the NBA.
After the Draft is over and we see exactly how it plays out for Hunter, Jerome, and Guy, I plan to dive deeper into this subject. But I want to give it a cursory discussion right now.
There are a few ways college coaches appeal to a young high school prospect's NBA dreams. The first is to promise them the world, flatter their potential immensely and guarantee them a starting position and all the shots they dream of to showcase for pro scouts just how great they are. That's, um, not even remotely Tony's style, nor is it at all congruent with the Five Pillars culture. Instead it's the method favored by young hotshots looking to make a splash; it's a "get rich quick" approach. The second way is the harder way, and that's to develop a proven track record of developing NBA players and then letting said track record do the talking for you. That's the territory we're getting into now.
(Do #2 long enough and you reach the 3rd stage, which is the Blue Blood / elder statesment approach where guys like Bill Self, Coach K, Calipari, and Roy Williams run established incubators, effective prep schools for guaranteed Top 10 prospects. The fourth and final approach is just to pay bribes out the nose of course.)
Tony's track record has taken a long time to take shape. His days at Washington State saw him turn big man Aron Baynes into an undrafted but long-tenured pro, and he did recruit and briefly coach Klay Thompson before Klay finished his ascent under Tony's successor. At Virginia he turned some guys ranked between 75-150 into 2nd round draft picks like Mike Scott, Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, and Devon Hall; the one consensus Top 50 prospect (Justin Anderson) he had ended up going in the 20's after his 3rd year. Tony had established himself as a guy who could turn prospects without a ton of buzz into 2nd-rounders, most well positioned to carve out multiple years in the league as rotational players.
What Tony didn't have to his credit was a Top 10 pick, nor had he proven that he could repeatedly put Top 50 kids into the league (going 1-for-1 is still, taking a negative POV, only accomplishing it just 1 time). Now, up until the 2016 class, he hadn't had other Top 50 types other than Justin; Ty and Kyle (along with Mamadi) were breakthroughs. And now those two guys are going to be on pro rosters a month from now, Ty likely as a 1st rounder, proving that Tony will get a Top 50 guy there with work and dedication. Oh, and Hunter is going to be Bennett's first Top 10 pick, shutting up many who said our system limits the draft lottery potential of elite scorers.
I can't promise this will immediately turn into top players flocking to UVA, but it's definitely a hurdle removed from Bennett's pursuit of some of the nation's top prospects.
There have been a lot of great Hoos and great Hoo teams over the decades. We've cheered for them, traveled around the country to watch them play, followed their careers at and after UVA, many to the NBA, and for the best of them we've hung banners in the rafters of U-Hall and JPJ retiring their numbers and celebrating their accomplishments.
And you know what none of them before this year did? Win a national championship. The holy grail of acheivments in college sports is winning March Madness. Few fan bases ever get to experience the euphoria of watching their team cut down the final set of nets, but we UVA fans will get to treasure this memory for the rest of our lives. Why don't we take a few minutes and relive that epic run:
And in addition to a lot of other important people, we largely have the players to thank for that. Players who never quit, always found a way to get a crucial stop or make a timely bucket, to rally as a team and win battle after battle to claim that title. Think of all the great Hoo teams that didn't reach that ultimate level, yet these guys did.
Jack Salt, De'Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome, Kyle Guy, and Mamadi Diakite will forever be synonymous with UVA's national championship.
Yes, it's a little different with four-year players. There's a special sort of closure you get when you get to follow a guy from his freshman season all the way through to his senior night, even if that career maybe didn't involve a ton of stats or hardware. The affinity remains, especially for those of us who then get to share their experience of earning a UVA diploma.
With Hoos that don't stay a full four years, it can often feel incomplete. Maybe they weren't the right fit for the school or program. Maybe health issues unfortunately intervened. For many of these, the farewells are bittersweet because it can feel unfinished. Maybe it feels underwhelming, hopes or expectations were unmet. Sure, we wish these kids the best in their future endeavors, both academic and athletic, but it's not quite as complete a feeling as it is with the four- (or five-)year types.
There's nothing "incomplete" about the tenures of Hunter, Guy, or Jerome. This isn't Justin Anderson taking his pro shot in 2015 after disappointing finishes in his prior NCAAT appearances, with a 2016 title run potentially suffering for his absence. No, these players got UVA over a hump that at many points seemed impossible. They got the Final Four monkey off our backs that previous great Hoo teams didn't (not an indictment of those teams so much as it's a testament to just how steep a challenge it is).
Would it have been fun to watch them all return for one more year, to take a shot at repeating, something no program has done since Florida in 2006 and 2007? Of course, but it's not realistic. This is the cost of being a championship program in this era when the NBA prefers youth over experience. So while it's bittersweet to say goodbye, they're leaving with a legacy as full and accomplished as most any player that preceeded them.
Their legacies include Ty's fake-out bomb in Cameron. Hunter's buzzer-beater at Louisville. Kyle's three straight FTs to send us to the title game. Ty's pass to Dre in the corner to force overtime vs Texas Tech. Team accomplishments like UVA's first #1 AP ranking since the days of Ralph, the first win at Duke since 1995, a pair of ACC title banners in 2018 and a regular season banner in 2019, our first Final Four appearance since 1984, a pair of NCAAT 1-seeds, and the school's biggest national championship ever. Forget the individual hardware; those are team and program accomplishments that will forever be associated with these young men. And it's why they'll forever be heroes in Charlottesville, never having to pay for a drink in the Commonwealth as long as Hoos live to remember it.
And so our farewell to these players is inextricably also a thank you. A thank you for the hard work and dedication, for the injuries fought through and the fearlessness shown in coming back from UMBC that enabled Hoo nation to collectively celebrate like we've never celebrated before. And a thank you for doing so while being model, upstanding members of the Charlottesville community.
What began in September of 2015 in coach Bennett's living room, when a visiting Hunter sat around with Kyle and Ty (among others) and the Big 3 first formed, now comes to an end.
And if it was inevitably going to have to end, what better ending could you have asked for?