June 4, 2014

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On the other side of the globe, in a small country where rugby rules, a boy grew a foot during his high school years and began to assert himself on the basketball court.

Among those who noticed were George Raveling and Kirk Penney, both of whom have ties to UVa coach Tony Bennett.

Raveling, Nike’s director of international basketball, is a former Washington State head coach, as is Bennett. Penney, who’s from Auckland, New Zealand, starred at guard for the University of Wisconsin when Bennett was an assistant there, and they’ve remained close.

“He’s like a little brother, Kirk is,” said Bennett, who spent three seasons in the late `90s with the North Harbor Kings in Auckland, the final two as head coach, and helped lure Penney to Wisconsin.

And so when Penney, who played two seasons in the NBA, repeated what Raveling had said — that a young Kiwi center named Jack Salt had serious potential — Bennett was intrigued.

“No one [in America] knew anything about him. He was kind of hidden,” Bennett recalled last week at John Paul Jones Arena.

“Kirk said, `You need to check on this young big guy coming up who went to my high school. He’s a left-hander, which I know you like, and he’s real aggressive. He’s young in the sport, but he shows upside and is real physical. His character is great, and he’s a serious student. I think there’s really something there.’ ”

Like Penney before him, Salt attended Westlake Boys High School in Auckland, and Bennett’s interest grew when he learned that one of Salt’s coaches was Judd Flavell.

“I coached Judd Flavell,” Bennett said, laughing. “It’s a small world over there.”

Bennett has a number of basketball contacts in New Zealand, and their evaluations of the 6-foot-10 Salt echoed those made by Penney and Raveling. The Cavaliers’ coaches reviewed videotape of Salt, liked what they saw, and “then we really pursued him,” Bennett said.

Salt has played as an amateur for professional teams in New Zealand, but the prospect of getting a college education in the United States, while experiencing Division I basketball, appealed to him.

In Auckland, Penney showed him video highlights of the `Hoos and told Salt about Bennett as a coach and as a man. Salt flew to Charlottesville with his mother last September and during his visit met another New Zealander, rower Hannah Osborne, who as chance would have it knew his stepbrother, also a rower.

Salt committed to the Cavaliers before returning home to New Zealand. Some eight months later — at 9 a.m. on May 19, to be exact — he arrived in Charlottesville after a 30-hour journey and started summer school at the University. He’s living with teammates Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon and enjoying life in the States.

“I was a bit nervous before in New Zealand about coming over to a new environment, but those guys and the coaches have made it really easy on me, just being really welcoming,” Salt said.

Charlottesville is some 8,000 miles from Auckland, but it helps that Salt has relatives, on his father’s side, who live in the D.C. area.

“It was definitely a big positive coming here, knowing that they’re two hours away, and I’m welcome to stay with them,” Salt said. “And also my dad’s in England, and that’s an eight-hour flight. So there are a lot of positives.”

As for finding his way around Grounds, Salt said the “first few days I was a bit puzzled. It took me a while, but I pretty much got my bearings now. I guess I’m lucky. It was just me and A.G. at the start, so it was really relaxed, and I could just get my bearings.”

He doesn’t have a car or a bicycle here. “I catch the bus,” Salt said, smiling. “I know one bus route. So I wait for that bus. I catch that bus. I know where to get off. I’m getting better. It’s just taking a while.”

The second session of summer school starts June 16, and the Wahoos will begin team workouts that week. With most of the other players still out of town, Salt has been getting one-on-one instruction at JPJ in sessions with assistant coach Jason Williford and strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis.

Salt also works on big-man drills with the 6-8 Gill and 6-11 Mike Tobey, who returned to Charlottesville recently.

“It’s been good,” Salt said. “I’m really enjoying it. It’s intense. The coaches are good. They’ve made clear what they want from me, and I’m trying to do the best to give what they need from me and the team.”

Curtis laughed when asked if Salt is a willing learner.

“He is probably the most respectful kid that I think I’ve been around in my whole entire career,” Curtis said. “Everything is `yes, sir, no, sir, thank you, sir.’ That’s every other word out of his mouth. He’s very humble. He’s going to fit right in with this group, and he likes to work.”

Salt, who turned 18 in February, is a lean 235 pounds. Eventually, Curtis said, “I think he can carry 245 to 255, but we’ll put on what we need to put on to allow him to assume the role that he needs to assume within the framework of our team. But he has a good frame. I think he has the potential to be a big, physical bruiser for us.”

After finishing the second session of summer school next month, Salt will return to New Zealand to try out for the national team, the Tall Blacks, for whom he played last year on a tour to China.

Should Salt make the team, he’ll play with the Tall Blacks at the FIBA world championships in Spain late this summer. Among the other teams in New Zealand’s group, coincidentally, is the Dominican Republic, whose coaching staff includes UVa assistant Ron Sanchez.

With Oklahoma City Thunder center Steven Adams’ recent decision to skip the world championships, Salt’s chances of making the national team have improved.

Adams, who stands 7-0, is from Rotorua, New Zealand. He spent one season at the University of Pittsburgh before leaving for the NBA last year, and he’s a towering figure in his native country’s basketball community.

“A lot of people look up to him, and I do too, for what he’s done,” said Salt, who has met Adams.

Salt, whose father is English, was born in London. Salt moved to New Zealand when he was around 5 and has lived there ever since. Adams’ success has made hoops more popular in New Zealand, but it’s far from the most popular sport.

“Rugby’s everything in New Zealand,” Salt said.

Growing up in a family of rowers, including his mother and his sister, Salt focused on soccer, volleyball and basketball. That Salt still has much to learn on the court is one reason Bennett considers him such an intriguing prospect.

“He’s new to all this,” Bennett said. “He’s like a blank slate, in a good way. He hasn’t developed a lot of bad habits, he hasn’t developed a lot of good habits. He’s raw, and I think he’s a sponge to learn. He hasn’t been spoiled by people telling him he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. He doesn’t have an entourage.

“If you can play and be hungry from a country where basketball is somewhat popular, but not like rugby and other sports, and in a place that’s not a hotbed, that’s a good sign. That’s a Joe Harris [from] Chelan, Washington. Guys that come from those small places, they’re driven by other things.”

Harris, of course, was among the leaders on the UVa team that swept the ACC regular-season and tournament titles in 2013-14. The Cavaliers must replace Harris and 6-8 Akil Mitchell, but Bennett’s frontcourt options in 2014-15 will include Gill, Tobey, Darion Atkins, Evan Nolte and newcomers Salt and Isaiah Wilkins.

Given that, there’s no guarantee Salt will have a prominent role in his first college season. That’s OK with him.

His goal, Salt said, is to “just get better every day. Just really focus, whether I’m with Coach Curtis for conditioning or with any coach. Just focus and take what they’re giving me, and just keep getting better at it. It’s going to be a long process, but if I just keep going and getting better, hopefully I can help this team out.”

Bennett said: “It’s a long-range investment that I think is going to be positive for both.”

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