Photo courtesy of Matt Riley – UVA Athletics.
The Virginia men’s basketball team played their first public game of the 2021-22 hoops season in front of fans at John Paul Jones Arena in their annual Blue-White scrimmage.
Here are five takeaways about the team this season from the event:
1. The two new transfers are going to immediately contribute
After Virginia lost quite a few players last offseason — some to the NBA, some to the transfer portal, and some to graduation — they sought out two transfers to help bolster this year’s roster: Indiana guard Armaan Franklin and East Carolina big man Jayden Gardner. Both look like they’re going to play significant roles on this year’s young team.
Franklin started the game for the White team, who seemed to open the scrimmage with the starting lineup, and shared the backcourt with Reece Beekman and Kihei Clark. He looked comfortable on both ends of the floor, finishing with 10 points. Franklin’s shooting will be key to spacing the floor alongside that backcourt duo, and he seemed plenty willing to let it fly in the scrimmage, attempting four threes.
Though he didn’t knock any triples down, it’s fair to assume that’ll regress to the mean: he shot 42% from beyond the arc last season at Indiana. Franklin also had one of the highlights at the scrimmage with an acrobatic finish at the rim around Francisco Caffaro.
Gardner, too, looked ready for an immediate spot as one of the team’s leading scorers. He made the first two baskets of the game for the White team off a pair of post-ups on the left block and looked very much like the overwhelming scorer he was at East Carolina, where he won Player of the Year two seasons ago.
He finished as the game’s leading scorer, putting up 18 points while shooting 7-12 from the field and 4-6 from the line. It’s still early in the season, but there’s a case to be made that if Virginia needs a late-game bucket, their best option might be to dump the ball down low to Gardner and let him go to work.
2. Taine Murray might be ready sooner rather than later
Coming into the season, it was clear that someone was going to have to step up and earn minutes on the wing, where the team has very little experience. Ideally, that someone would be one of the team’s two new foreign imports: Taine Murray and Igor Milicic Jr. If the Blue-White scrimmage is any indication, it seems like Murray might be closer to seeing playing time than originally suspected.
The odds are working against Taine playing a high number of minutes this season. As a freshman from New Zealand, it’d be normal for him to need some time to adjust to the Virginia system, and there’s no immediate pressure on him to perform. But if he can replicate his scrimmage performance, Murray might force his way onto the court much like Reece Beekman did last season.
Taine showcased scoring ability from all three levels. He hit a nice fadeaway to open the scoring for his Blue team in the first half, knocked down an NBA-range three after a jab step, and finished a tough layup through contact after a cut. If he continues to flash, Taine might become a rotation piece sooner rather than later.
3. Reece Beekman looks ready to take the next step
Reece has loftier expectations than most second-year guards do at Virginia, but he looked perfectly capable of shouldering that load in the scrimmage. He finished with 17 points, knocking down one catch-and-shoot three but otherwise doing his damage around the hoop.
Beekman’s handle looked very smooth and fluid, and he looked comfortable driving either direction. Going to his right, Reece had a few tough scoops and lay-ins; going left, he pulled up and knocked down a nice floater in the lane.
For all the Reece-needs-a-better-jumper proponents this offseason, of which I was one, he did also take two stepback threes off the dribble. He didn’t make either of them, but the footwork and release looked good (his release is quicker off the dribble than off the catch), and the fact that he’s even attempting those shots bodes well for Reece extending his range this season.
Even when guarded by his fleet-footed starting backcourt mate Kihei Clark during the second half of the scrimmage, Beekman didn’t seem bothered, and he was still able to get to his spots on the offensive end. Defensively, he was his usual self, with his active hands being key to the White team surging to a 15-0 lead at the beginning of the scrimmage. With an increased role this year, Reece seems ready to break out.
4. Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick will be a menacing frontcourt in the ACC
If I had to make a bold prediction about this year’s Virginia team that I think is fairly probable, it would be this: the pairing of Jayden Gardner and Kadin Shedrick will be the best starting frontcourt in the ACC, and one of the best in the country.
I spent enough ink (or pixels, I suppose) on Gardner in my first observation; there’s no need to rehash a play-by-play of his game here. Long story short, he’s physically overpowering in the post and plays with a ton of confidence down low; he’s currently the team’s best scorer. But we already knew that, at least a little bit, due to his distinguished body of work at East Carolina.
The bigger surprise for me was how skilled and smooth Shedrick looked. He finished with 14 points in the scrimmage, almost all of which came from post-ups or face-up jump shots. Shedrick’s go-to move is his post hook — he went to it quickly and confidently in the scrimmage, and watching him knock it down over 7’1 Francisco Caffaro inspires confidence that it’s a shot he can get off against just about anyone. His fluidity and touch down low is reminiscent of Anthony Gill.
Shedrick also stepped out and attempted a few jump shots, which’ll be key for spacing the floor when he and Gardner play together. Gardner has discussed a desire to shoot more jump shots, but moving such a dominant post player outside feels like forcing a square peg into a round hole.
Shedrick is probably the better option to step outside and shoot — his jumper looked smooth and quick, and he seemed happy to get shots up in the scrimmage. After he made a 15-footer facing up in the post, one optimistic fan sitting near me remarked that he looked like Anthony Davis; I’m not sure I would go quite that far yet, but early returns on Shedrick’s first truly healthy season are very promising.
5. The Blue-White scrimmage is a fun event — it could use some more promotion
The preseason is maybe the most enjoyable part of the college basketball season. Before the weight of expectations starts to set in, before “bracketology” bears any meaning, before any worries about who will be back next season and who will depart for the NBA start to weigh heavily over every game, there’s just optimism and hopefulness for the year to come.
Okay, that’s a lie. Nothing is more fun than the first two days of March Madness. But this is the time for hype-building! It felt great to be at John Paul Jones Arena and feel the buzz around the team; spoiler alert: Virginia fans are pretty optimistic about the season! The only downside to the all-around enjoyable, low-pressure atmosphere of the blue-white scrimmage is that more fans weren’t able to experience it.
No one’s saying that Virginia needs to book Snoop Dogg for their preseason scrimmage, like the University of Kansas did in 2019 for Late Night at the Phog. That’s not the program’s modus operandi. But if Virginia wants to vault into the elite tier of college basketball programs — which, in terms of on-court success, they already have — it would benefit them to engage the fans and alumni a little bit more. Especially in the COVID era, it can’t hurt to at least stream the game.