How Ben Vander Plas unlocks greater versatility for Virginia

Ben Vander Plas will make the move from the MAC to the ACC. As the 6-foot-8 forward heads to Virginia, Tony Bennett’s squad looks poised for a bounce-back 2022-23 season.

Virginia won 21 times in the 2021-22 campaign, including two postseason games. The Cavaliers ranked No. 59 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. Plenty of programs would do backflips for this type of resume, but it was a down year for Virginia. It marked the first time in a decade that Virginia’s defense finished out the Top 40 in efficiency. It was also the first time since 2013 that Virginia failed to receive a bid (not including 2020) for the NCAA Tournament.

Not too long ago, Vander Plas and Virginia faced one another in the First Round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Ohio upset Virginia that day; Vander Plas went for 17 points and four assists. It’s been only a year and some change, but he’s now bound for Charlottesville.

The addition of Vander Plas is a veteran injection of talent and versatility to Bennett’s rotation. Virginia returns the key components from this past season’s frontcourt: midrange assassin Jayden Gardner, talented rim-protector Kadin Shedrick and an improved Francisco Caffaro. Isaac Traudt, a 6-foot-10 stretch big, enters the mix, too.

That’s an imposing quartet, but with Vander Plas in the mix, too, UVA can unlock a greater variety of different lineup combinations and half-court actions.

Quick Numbers: Ben Vander Plas

During his four seasons with the Bobcats, Vander Plas emerged as a stretch-4 that can play with the basketball; he’s not just a catch-and-shoot target. Vander Plas can shoot (55.5 percent career true shooting rate), operate in the post as a playmaker and finish from multiple levels of the floor.

According to Synergy Sports, Vander Plas shot 57.7 percent on post-up attempts this season, scoring 1.0 points per possession.

Vander Plas has a confident handle. When he senses and feels the double team, he scans the floor and looks for skip passes to the weak side.

This is a perfect Vander Plas possession vs. LSU: post iso against Brandon Murray. When Darius Days comes to soft double on the spin, Mark Sears cuts through and Vander Plas spots the open weak-side target. With dribble-drives, Ohio continues to attack LSU’s scrambled defense; while that happens, Vander Plas relocates up top for a good look from deep.

Vander Plas was one of 13 Division I players this season with 15.0 percent defensive rebound rate, 15.0 percent assist rate, 55 2P% and 100+ 3PA. Some of the other players to hit these benchmarks include a couple of talented NBA Draft prospects: Alondes Williams, Vince Williams, Adonis Arms and David Roddy.

With his all-around game, Vander Plas scored 1,574 career points (12.9 per game), drained 209 3-pointers (32.5 3P%) and dished out 335 assists (3.5 per 40 minutes) at Ohio.

Over the last two seasons, Vander Plas, playing off Jason Preston and Sears, got up a lot of 3-point attempts: 55 percent of his field goals were from beyond the arc. He shot 34.3 percent on those looks, including plenty of attempts that came off of his movement.

In the 2021-22 season, BVP scored 1.11 points per spot-up possession (58.3 eFG%), according to Synergy.

Matched up above with a switching Tari Eason (No. 13), one of the top defensive prospects in the 2022 NBA Draft, Vander Plas relocates, shot fakes and hits a one-dribble pull-up for 3.

Find The Flow

When Vander Plas forces a hard closeout on a pick-and-pop or a spot-up catch, he has the vision and passing feel to make defenses pay.

On this possession: Ohio flows from a Horns set into pick-and-pop with Sears and Vander Plas. When Toledo puts two on the ball, BVP is open on the pop; as the defense scrambles to contest, Vander Plas shot fakes and finds the mistake in the coverage.

This is big for a frontcourt that last season included very little stretch. With Jay Huff, Sam Hauser and Trey Murphy III all gone, the cupboard was mostly bare. Gardner has nice shooting touch, but his range doesn’t extend beyond 17-18 feet. When Bennett wanted to add some shooting at the 4/5 spots, he was forced to downsize and/or play unproven freshman: Taine Murray and Igor Milicic. Those looks never really hit, though, and Bennett’s trust remained low.

Small-Ball Potential?

Virginia finished the season -23 in 143 minutes with Murray on the floor, per Pivot Analysis. Murray lineups helped juice the offense: 1.1 points per possession with Murray on the floor. Most notably, he caught fire during Virginia’s near upset of Iowa in late November. However, the defense the defense sputtered (1.22 points per possession allowed) all too often.

According to Pivot Analysis, Virginia was -13 in 15 minutes with Murray and Gardner on the floor, and Shedrick and Caffaro off.

Even when UVA played with more frontcourt shooting, the limitations of the backcourt — for instance, Armaan Franklin’s season-long power outage (29.6 3P%) from deep — still cramped the team’s half-court spacing and flow.

Looking ahead, though: Virginia could really unlock its offense by trying some small-ball looks — with BVP and Gardner at the 4/5 — while not compromising its defense. Vander Plas, who posted a steal rate of 2.9 percent this season, offers scheme versatility guarding ball screens, including the ability to hedge-and-recover.

Over on offense, iff UVA can get Vander Plas (as a screener) matched up with a drop defender in ball screen actions, he’ll burn those coverages.

Another “small-ball” option would have Vander Plas or Gardner at the 4, with Traudt as the de facto 5. Bennett, however, will likely want to keep a true 5 on the floor as much as possible. That’s how this team sets the edge defensively: ball screen hedges from the center.

Regardless of alignment, BVP’s passing is something to tap into. When Vander Plas sees a scrambled defense, he constantly makes good decisions with the ball.

Kent State doesn’t drop in coverage on this ball screen. Instead, the Golden Flashes put two on the ball vs. Preston. Vander Plus is open on the pop; the weak-side defender is left to guard two players, with Ben Roderick in the corner. That weak-side defender doesn’t stunt-and-recover; he chooses to fully closeout on BVP, which leaves Roderick open for the corner kick.

It’ll be really neat to see Beekman — now as a primary creator — get to work with a stretch-4 that can make plays in secondary action. During his freshman season, Beekman was a low-usage off-ball cog in Virginia’s system; he didn’t get to work too many spread-floor two-man actions with Hauser, Huff and Murphy.

That role shifted for the 2021-22 season. It came with some growing pains, too. With Vander Plas or Traudt as screeners, opponents won’t be able to load up coverages on Beekman, who is still developing, unconcerned with the pick-and-pop.

As the 2021-22 season progressed, Beekman showed more and more confidence with the basketball. His usage rate jumped from 13.6 percent as a freshman up to 16.8 percent. Over the final five games of the season, Beekman’s usage climbed to 17.4 percent. For the season, Beekman posted an assist rate of 30.3 percent, a Top 70 number nationally and a massive increase over his rookie year (18.0 percent).

The pull-up jumper is still a work in progress; however, Beekman started getting downhill with more frequency later in the season, even going to his left hand, which has been an issue at times.

Another offseason of development for Beekman will go a long way. So, too, will a roster with improved personnel. With a more spaced floor, Beekman should see a cleaner paint on his drives to the basket. (Beekman dunking off a live dribble in the half court warms my heart.)

The flashes this season were rather enticing; however, if Beekman provides reliable rim pressure — both as a finisher and a creator — then it simplifies things even further for Virginia’s half-court offense.

Post-up Note, Pick-and-Popcorn

One of things Virginia went to out of Blocker-Mover this season was an isolated elbow touch for Gardner, followed by a weak-side pindown.

Down at Miami: Gardner hits Kihei Clark off the pindown, Clark finds Beekman on the baseline cut and the ball cycles back to Gardner for a 2.

On this after-timeout (ATO) possession vs. Pittsburgh, there’s very little off-ball motion/screening; it’s more of a direct elbow touch for Gardner. However, once Gardner catches and looks left, Caffaro sets the pindown for Franklin, who gets to his comfort zone: curling into the midrange (43.8 FG%).

The 6-foot-7 Gardner was at his best in Blocker Mover when he’d set a pindown, seal for an entry pass and then face-up off the catch. UVA got to this exact look dozens of times last season. Gardner’s midrange touch was on full display.

When there’s at least one stretch big on the floor, though, one of the best looks for Virginia to create out of Blocker Mover is the empty-side pindown-and-pop.

Back in the 2020-21 season: Hauser curls Murphy’s pindown vs. Miami, takes one dribble, sucks in two defenders and kicks to an open Murphy, one of the most efficient plays in college basketball that season.

From the 2018-19 season: here’s that same action. This time, though, Kyle Guy curls off the pindown from De’Andre Hunter, which brings Cam Johnson and Luke Maye in the paint. As a result, Hunter (43.8 3P%) is wide open for the kick-out 3-ball.

During the 2021-22 season, Virginia found some success running Gardner as the pop man in this pindown/Sides action. Gardner shot just 3-of-14 (21.4 3P%) from deep, but he’s prolific in the midrange: 45.3 percent on long 2-point attempts (with lots of volume).

This is still really nice action, but it’s not nearly as threatening for the defense when the pop guy doesn’t stretch it out beyond the arc. Two is less than three, plus the recovering defense doesn’t have to cover as much ground. The help rotations are easier.

Vander Plas will help here, but if Gardner finds a standstill 3-point jumper this offseason, it’ll be a game-changer for Virginia. That type of development would make Gardner one of the more complete offensive players in the ACC, too.

Quick Aside: Know Your Personnel (KYP)

It really is impressive to consider some of the movement shooters that Virginia’s offense has featured in just the last 3-4 seasons: Ty Jerome, Guy, Hauser and Murphy. Elite shooters, elite off-ball movers. Hell, Tomas Woldetensae could bomb off of down screens, too.

Once again, a big salute to Virginia’s coaching staff. This group is one of the best at identifying and developing talent — not just for their system, but beyond Virginia. Obviously, this has been pointed out before, but it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

It’s no coincidence that players like Joe Harris, Malcolm Brogdon, Murphy and Hunter quickly find roles in the NBA — contributing to winning teams as go-to guys or important secondary targets.

Frontcourt Rotation: 2022-23 Season

Given how crowded the 4/5 spots project for Virginia, it’s logical to consider Bennett playing some lineups with Vander Plas (as the de facto 3), Gardner and a true center on the floor, too. That’d be a big 3-4-5, one that looks similar to Kody Stattmann playing with Gardner and Shedrick/Caffaro.

Of course, the 2020-21 UVA squad played a lot of minutes with Hauser, Murphy and Huff on the floor together. According to Pivot Analysis, Virginia was +176 in 447 minutes with Hauser, Muphy and Huff on at the same time: +27.1 points per 100 possessions.

That trio was a bit of an outlier, though.

Hauser is one of the best movement shooters over the last decade of college basketball. However, all three guys were incredible shooters with great size: 6-foot-8 or taller, all above 38.5 percent shooting on 3-point attempts. That’s extremely uncommon for college basketball.

Murphy showcased his special shooting abilities and defensive versatility during the 2022 NBA Playoffs. The New Orleans Pelicans pushed the Phoenix Suns to six games in the first round. (The Pelicans were +32 in 120 minutes with TM3 on the floor.)

Now, Virginia’s 2022-23 froncourt won’t feature the same caliber of NBA prospects, although Shedrick intrigues as a run-jump center. However, there’s enough collective passing and shooting between Vander Plas and Gardner to make a jumbo lineup palatable on offense.

At this point, Vander Plas is a far superior passer and more mobile that Stattmann. If Virginia runs Blocker Mover with this alignment, it’s some combination of Vander Plas, Reece Beekman, Franklin and Clark working as the movers, while Gardner and Shedrick/Caffaro screen.

The decentralized playmaking approach to Blocker Mover would allow Beekman, Clark, Vander Plas and Gardner to hum as passers. As I’ve mentioned plenty of times before, Beekman is very good at using pindowns to curl into the lane and create for others.

There would be some speed concerns with that configuration on defense; however, with Beekman and Shedrick bookending things, Virginia’s defense should be potent, regardless of who else dots the perimeter.

One of the other obvious pushbacks to playing BVP at the 3: Virginia’s wing room is already pretty crowded. As Beekman continues his growth, it’s pushed Clark into more of an off-ball/combo role. Franklin returns, too.

It was partly out of necessity, but Beekman, Clark and Franklin played 805 minutes together this past season. That trio started 34 of Virginia’s 35 games. According to Pivot Analysis, the ‘Hoos were +47 with Beekman, Clark and Franklin on the floor together.

Think about that, though. Virginia played 35 games last season, including one overtime contest, a win over North Texas. That’s 1,405 minutes of basketball. This means Beekman, Clark and Franklin shared the court for 57.3 percent of Virginia’s minutes last season. It’s safe to say that percentage will drop in the 2022-23 season.

Virginia will add three more combo guards/wings to the roster this offseason: Isaac McKneely, Leon Bond and Ryan Dunn. All three were 4-star prospects in the 2022 class, including Top 60 recruits McKneely and Bond.

These are good problems to have; Virginia’s depth looks rather appealing on paper. This team projects to have enough two-way playmakers and shooters to win a lot of games. However, it will be tough to find time for sized-up lineups.

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