His name sounds like he could be the title character in an action movie franchise. He even looks a little like a young Dolph Lundgren.
And when Virginia hits the hardwood this season in pursuit of a third-straight regular season ACC title, Jack Salt might just be the hero the Cavaliers have been looking for.
Salt—a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman from New Zealand with a hard body and soft hands—has potential to be the most important player in the country you’ve likely never heard of. He’s a physical presence in the paint the Cavs have been missing the past two seasons, which both ended in losses to more rough and tumble Michigan State teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Watching Salt push around and generally outplay returning starting center Mike Tobey in a scrimmage at John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday, it was tough not to wonder how last year’s Michigan State game might have been different with him available.
It’s not that Virginia has lacked front court depth, which was a big reason Salt redshirted last season. Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and Anthony Gill have all excelled at the power forward position and Tobey is a 7-footer with a soft touch and good footwork. But he’s yet to develop the strength to bang with more physical teams. Despite Gill and Atkins both getting into foul trouble against the Spartans last year, Tobey only played 12 minutes and barely contributed against the physical MSU post players.
But if the scrimmage is any indication it doesn’t look like Virginia necessarily has to sacrifice a lot just to get a more physical defender and rebounder on the floor.
Salt ran the floor well and more than held his own against Tobey and Gill, a potential All-ACC player. Offensively, he showed an ability to catch and finish near the basket, and he also made some nice interior passes.
Tobey, who averaged seven points and five rebounds last year, more than likely will be in the Cavs starting lineup Nov. 13 when they open up against Morgan State. But don’t be shocked if Salt takes some of his minutes and Virginia coach Tony Bennett is able to expand his post rotation with Salt and sophomore forward Isaiah Wilkins. He may even be able to create mismatches with a twin-tower lineup, considering Tobey’s ability to step out and knock down jumpers.
Virginia has one of the most experienced backcourts in the country led by junior point guard London Perrantes and fifth-year senior Malcolm Brogdon, who was a second-team All-American last year. Sophomore Marial Shayok also stood out during Saturday’s scrimmage and gives UVA the kind of athletic wing it lost when Justin Anderson left early for the NBA.
It’s the front court where Virginia had some question marks beyond Gill and Tobey, after losing Atkins to graduation. You don’t want to read too much into an intrasquad scrimmage, but everything seen from and heard about the new big man is reason for optimism.
Salt gives the Cavaliers options they didn’t have before and could make Virginia a more complete team.