UVA fans are going to miss Jack Salt. Sure, he wasn't the flashiest stat-stuffer, but boy was it fun to have a physical seven-footer with good feet who could hold ground against just about anyone in the ACC.
Well I've got good news for you. Bennett found you another high-IQ physical seven-footer to take his place. Meet Francisco Caffaro, aka Big Papi.
The Argentinian came to UVA the long way, by finishing his high school (equivalent) years at the NBA Global Academy in Australia. Virginia quietly got a commitment from him at the beginning of May 2018, and only just in time as a month later Caffaro would lead the Argentina youth national team to a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas U18 tournament. He was the only non-American or Canadian named 1st team all-tournament (read our excellent writeup of Papi's performance at that event here: link) after averaging nearly 17 points and 9 rebounds a contest [stats]. Rivals rated him a four-star recruit based on that performance.
With Salt, Mamadi, and Huff on the roster last year, Papi's contributions weren't immediately required, and a minor knee surgery in the fall further simplified the decision to redshirt Caffaro and give him a year to work on rehab and get up to speed in the US game.
After a year's layoff, Caffaro once again suited up for Argentina at the U19 World Cup. Given his breakout in Ontario the summer prior, expectations were high, but frankly some rust showed. Whereas the summer prior, Argentina ran its offense through the post, in Greece the guards dominated the possessions. After averaging over 11 shots a game in Ontario he took fewer than 7 a game in Greece (admittedly his last game was injury-shortened). His minutes per game were comparable (30 minutes a game in 2018, 28 mpg in his six healthy games in 2019), and he continued to hit the glass hard (10 rebounds a game when healthy) and blocked about a shot a game. He consistently drew fouls and got to the line however, though converting them was a mixed bag.
Virginia fans finally got to see him in a UVA uniform this October at the Blue-White scrimmage (missed last year's with that knee injury), and he's ready to make his ACC debut when the Hoos go to Syracuse.
He's big and strong and knows how to use it. There's something to be said for knowing who you are and embracing it, and Caffaro knows that he's a 7'0" 245 lb wrecking ball of a center. For a man of his size, his mobility and athleticism are solid. He's not a big leaper, but he's not a stiff either, and moves around the paint pretty effectively at both ends of the floor.
He puts that size to use in a number of phases of the game. On offense, he can establish post position and score with a deft touch over most anyone. He also reportedly sets bone-crushing picks. On defense, he holds his ground against opposing big men, keeps his hands high and his body straight, with the effect of good rim protection even if it doesn't necessarily manifest itself in block statistics. Lastly, he's a great rebounder with solid instincts and good positioning, who's going to both grab his own share of boards and box out effectively for his teammates to clear.
When we call Papi a true center, we mean it. There is no floor-spacing element to his game. He's a big threat to score around the basket, but you're never going to see him pull up for jumpers, or even attack from a face-up position very often.
That shooting problem extends to his free throw shooting. While he was a 64% FT shooter at the FIBA Americas U18, that dropped to 38% in Greece this past summer. Papi's great at drawing contact on his post attacks, but if he can't make the FTs that come with it, UVA's missing a big opportunity.
Papi's going to be coming off the bench this year. When he gets called upon, how frequently, and for how long is a bit tenuous right now, because that's dependent on how "big" we play with Mamadi or Jay at the 4-spot.
When he's on the floor, Caffaro is the center, in the very traditional sense. He'll guard the other team's biggest guy, he'll set screens and post up on offense, he'll hold position and box out on defense.
It feels really lazy to say "the things that Jack did, Caffaro is going to do," because it short-changes some of their differences. But in terms of big-picture role, the roles and responsibilities will be similar.
Caffaro's got very real upside, but a few things are still working against him at the moment. First, he's a true big man, and for whatever reason big men have historically needed to be brought along slowly under Bennett at UVA. Second, he's an international player with limited experience playing at the speed of the D-1 game; it takes time on the floor for the brain to catch up, and it's a pretty commonly steep learning curve for international players across the country. And third, Jay Huff and Mamadi Diakite are both ready to chip in major minutes in the post this year.
With that said, Papi's still going to play. With Jay and Mamadi, Papi gets to ease into to D-1 life with maybe 5-10 minutes a night. Early practice reports have Caffaro ahead of true freshman Kadin Shedrick in the big man pecking order, so he'll get the nod when those two need a breather. His usage may be fairly situational in competitive games, as he'll be better suited when lined up against a traditional post-oriented center as opposed to small-ball lineups; there may even be games where he doesn't appear at all, though I expect those instances to be on the rare side. For now, expect his contributions to be more opportunistic, a bucket here and there, a rebound or two a night, and probably some inconsistent defense until he gets comfortable.
Roster makeup makeup means we're maybe going big this year more often than not, with Key (or McKoy) doing time at small forward and Mamadi moving to the 4-spot, maybe even starting there. If hypothetically Mamadi puts in, say, 15 of his maybe 25 minutes a night at the 4, and Jay probably tops out at 15-20 minutes a game, all of a sudden there's 10-15 minutes of playing time that needs filling at the 5-spot.
10-15 minutes a night is a very real opportunity for Papi. That means he's playing every game, from JMU all the way to Duke, and he's going to need to do more than just eat minutes while Huff and Diakite rest. He's going to get post touches, he's going to be asked to defend all-ACC big men, and he's going to need to clear the glass, all while staying out of foul trouble.
It won't always be pretty at first, but there's no greater teaching opportunity than being on the floor in live minutes. And come January, we could see Papi start to get kind of comfortable in those minutes, providing a stable double-digit minutes presence in the post, and maybe averaging 4-5 ppg and 3-4 rebounds in those minutes. It requires the roster math to break down a certain way, but Papi may be primed to capitalize should that opportunity come his way.
Jack Salt 2.0 isn't just what bloggers call him, it's what Braxton Key called him at ACC media days. But with all due respect to the now-graduated warrior, that may be selling Papi a little short. Now, Jack had a work ethic that was unparalleled in the ACC, and it's what made him so effective for so many years. But part of what made Jack's success so astounding was that he did have some limitations he had to overcome, and Papi has the leg up there. First off, Papi's bigger, with two extra inches on Jack, so he's just a naturally more imposing presence in the post. Second, Papi's got offensive instincts that Jack could only dream of. Now, I've always been of a mind Jack had the skills to do more offensively (witness his destruction of NC State in this year's ACCT quarterfinals), but it just wasn't where his head was at. Jack didn't hunt post scoring opportunities. Papi will. If he gets the ball on the blocks against a guy he can take, Papi is aggressive and will fight his way to the iron, drawing a whistle as often as not. That's something we haven't had in years.
With Diakite and Huff in place, we're likely just to see flashes of Caffaro's potential this year, and as mentioned before that will be offset at times by typical growing pains moments. But we have a need for a guy like him, and the quicker he gets comfortable with the speed and challenge of ACC ball, the quicker the ACC is going to learn to hate him.