Justin McKoy was the last member of our freshman class to sign on, pledging to Tony Bennett just this past April in the wake of our title celebration at Scott Stadium.
He had originally been a member of Penn State's 2019 class, committing last year after a quiet junior summer. The Cary, NC native never seemed to gain much traction with any of the big local AAU clubs, only being briefly affiliated with both Garner Road and Team Loaded NC. It's unclear if injuries played any role in his lack of big time AAU run during his final summer, but the end result was the same, that it depressed his recruiting stock considerably.
However, his stock continued to inch up throughout his senior year. Playing for his local public high school (Panther Creek) as opposed to a prep league, his opportunities to shine vs comparable competition were few and far between. But the annual John Wall Invitational gave him that platform, including an opportunity to go head-to-head with Top 50 FSU-commit Patrick Williams. (Here's a clip of Justin taking it to Williams in that game)
Just as he had done as a junior, Justin shined at the event, winning all-tournament honors for his bracket.
TJ WARREN ALL-TOURNAMENT TEAM— Holiday Invitational (@JohnWallHoliday) December 30, 2018
🗣️ "BAAAACK TO BAAAACK!" Penn State commit @JustintMcKoy earns his second straight #TheJohnWall All-Tournament Honors. He led Panther Creek to its best finish since '08. pic.twitter.com/mZGcE2cxxT
He quietly decommitted from the Nittany Lions in March while early smoke indicated he'd head to nearby NC State where his sister already attended. But when a trio of powerhouses started calling the McKoy household, not just Virginia but also North Carolina and Tennessee, it was clear that Justin would have an opportunity to truly level up.
Roy Williams came by his gym to personally offer a scholarship in April, and the following weekend Justin visited UVA to watch the Wahoo love fest. He committed upon his return home and arrived in Charlottesville just a couple months later to begin his career at Virginia.
At a listed 6'8" and 220 lbs, Justin is physically ready to compete in the ACC. That's not to say that Mike Curtis won't have work to do to improve his hops, agility, endurance, or muscle ratio. But he's got about as college-ready a body as you're going to find, with plenty of good mass to allow him to bang around with bigger players.
For a guy his size, he's also got a very capable handle, allowing him to move both in the open court and in the half court with the ball in his hands. While not a guard, he's definitely got an above average handle for a guy with a power forward's build.
Like most any true freshman, or really any newcomer at Virginia, defense is going to be a concern early on. Bennett is going to ride him hard to learn how to be in position as a forward in the Pack Line, which will require patience to master both individual and team responsibilities. That's not to say he won't have the tools to get there eventually, as he's got adequate athleticism and a good head on his shoulders. But if there's one thing that likely limits his contributions this coming year, it's being too often out of position defensively.
His jump shot will also need improvement. It's not bad, and he's not going to be the sort of guy perpetually discouraged from using his shot. One of the things that stood out to Bennett was McKoy's ability to be a threat all the way out to the perimeter (basically, going forward, everyone but true centers will have that requirement). But there's a difference between baseline adequate and legit good. It will probably take some time before his shot is something that defenses have to scheme for.
Remember what Braxton Key was for us last year, as a utility knife forward off the bench that could sub in as a face-up 4, crash the glass, drag a defender away from the paint, and log serviceable minutes to keep starters fresh? Yeah, that. With Braxton moving into the starting lineup, either as a 3 or 4 (TBD), McKoy is essentially his intern and backup. He'll likely serve that role for two years as former 2nd-Team All-Big East combo forward Sam Hauser steps into Braxton's role next year. But for a moderately regarded 3-star, asking him to apprentice behind two former P5 all-conference performers (Braxton was all-SEC freshman in 2017) for two years before taking over the starting reins himself is fair. The more his shot develops, and the more he finds a comfort level in the defense, the faster Tony will feel confident deploying him for long stretches.
McKoy doesn't arrive at UVA with any sort of "sure thing" pedigree. He's big and strong but his athleticism stops short of being elite. His handle is very good for a big forward but he's not quite a jumbo guard. Like just about all newcomers at UVA, he's going to have some learning curve to both the offensive and defensive systems.
Couple those aspects with the fact that UVA's deepest this season in the front court, where Braxton returns as a 3/4, Mamadi as a 4/5, and Jay Huff and Francesco Caffaro as true 5's, and there may not be a huge need for Justin to do much anyways. That goes double if Shedrick proves able to contribute, or if Huff and Mamadi prove capable of playing on the floor together.
In that case, Justin may be limited to 10-ish minutes a night of relief duty. I certainly expect him to play real minutes, even in competitive ACC play, but not in a way where he's being leaned on. Instead, his contributions will be more of the unsung variety (screen setting and rebounds) and the opportunistic (putbacks, transition). He'll be able to be brought along relatively slowly as a true freshman, much as Isaiah Wilkins once was.
Combo forwards are all the rage in college basketball for a reason. The ACC has seen lower profile guys turn into breakout contributors around the league: guys like Jaron Blossomgame, Torin Dorn, Bonzie Colson, Anthony Lawrence, and Jordan Nwora all went on to be double digit scorers because of their adaptability in attacking defensive weaknesses. Playing a team with more of a traditional slow-footed power forward? Just force them to defend you on the perimeter. Playing a 4-guard lineup? Overpower them in the paint.
It's because of this seismic shift in the deployment of combo forwards that McKoy's sudden availability in March spurred a who's who of Top 10 coaches to come after him.
So does McKoy break out right away, or is his turn a couple years away? Depends on what kind of opportunity the rest of the roster affords him. If Key proves capable of playing extended minutes at the 3-spot, and if Mamadi and the rest of the bigs struggle to share the floor together, then Bennett is going to look to McKoy to maybe be the answer at the 4-spot for more than just relief minutes.
And if that light goes on quickly as to picking up the defense, then McKoy could be getting 20 minutes a night and punching in high-single-digits in the scoring column.
A lot of "ifs" needs to occur for this to come to pass, but it's not out of the question if things break right.
Get excited about Justin McKoy. Maybe not for November, but definitely for the long haul. The love-fest over combo forwards is very real, and having McKoy around first to augment Braxton and Hauser, then second to be the future of the UVA 4-spot, is reason to be optimistic.
When one HoF coach goes after a recruit, it could be an anomaly. But when three do it: Bennett, Barnes, and Roy, well where there's smoke there's fire. McKoy being able to give solid reserve minutes at the 4 really frees Braxton Key up to augment the perimeter rotation at the 3 spot for stretches, and gives us solid insurance in case anyone else misses time.
On top of all of his on court abilities, Justin will also be an excellent team mate and another stellar member of the program, and you can bet he's already making positive impacts on the program, even if the stat impacts are yet to come.