Dec. 16, 2015
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For the final five games of the University of Virginia’s 2014-15 basketball season, Devon Hall sat and watched from the bench. Hall was healthy and in uniform, but head coach Tony Bennett chose to use other backcourt reserves, first in Virginia’s regular-season finale and then in the ACC and NCAA tournaments.
This was not the role Hall envisioned when he enrolled at UVA in June 2013, but he didn’t pout. Instead, he responded exactly as the Cavaliers’ coaching staff hoped he would: by redoubling his efforts in the gym and weight room during the offseason.
“He just worked hard,” Bennett said.
Hall has seen his perseverance rewarded this season. The 6-5 redshirt sophomore from Virginia Beach has carved out a meaningful role for No. 8 UVA (8-1), which hosts No. 12 Villanova (8-1) at noon Saturday at John Paul Jones Arena. ESPN2 will televise the game, which is sold out.
“It feels good just to be able to get back in the swing of playing games,” Hall said after a recent practice at JPJ.
He’s averaging 19.7 minutes per game and already has totaled 48 points, 16 assists and seven steals, with only four turnovers. As a redshirt freshman, Hall averaged 10.6 minutes and recorded 42 points, 18 assists and nine steals in his 23 appearances, and he turned the ball over 12 times.
“You wait your turn, you work, you develop, and maybe it doesn’t happen in the first year or two,” Bennett said. “But he’s a hard worker … and he’s given us big lifts. He’s just showed up and punched the clock, and I’ll take guys like that who are blue-collar guys all day. He’s got a great attitude, and his character is strong.”
Against Morgan State in the season-opener, Hall scored a career-high 13 points. In another one-sided victory three games later, against Long Beach State in the Charleston (S.C.) Classic, he hit 4 of 5 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. For the season he’s averaging 5.3 points and 2.6 rebounds per game.
“It’s exciting, I know that much,” Hall said. “Last year was a little bit up and down, and the year before that, obviously, I redshirted. But it’s fun, getting back in the swing of playing basketball and being able to get minutes in and help wherever I can, whether that’s me out there for eight minutes or me out there for 25.”
A graduate of Cape Henry Collegiate in Virginia Beach, Hall arrived at UVA at the same time as another guard, London Perrantes, and they bonded immediately. Their college basketball careers, though, have followed different arcs.
Perrantes started 33 games at point guard as a freshman in 2013-14. Hall redshirted that season, in part because he was not as careful with the ball as his roommate Perrantes.
As the point guard at Cape Henry, Hall could get away with high-risk, high-reward passes. At UVA, those passes often became turnovers. If he wanted playing time at Virginia, Hall was told, he had to be more sound with the ball.
“Coach Bennett preached that, because when I first got here, I was turning the ball over a lot,” Hall said.
He pointed to the court, where a few feet away freshman Justice Bartley was working with a student-manager on ball-handling drills.
“I used to do that stuff every single day,” Hall said, “[working on] being able to take care of the ball in pressure situations like that.”
That work is paying dividends, as Bennett has not hesitated to play Hall in crucial situations this season. Hall’s assist-to-turnover ratio leads the team. In the Cavaliers’ most recent game — a 70-54 win over then-No. 14 West Virginia at Madison Square Garden — they turned the ball over a season-high 19 times. The Mountaineers pressed for most of the game.
“If you were shaky with the ball, they were going to poke it away or put you in a tough spots,” Bennett said.
Hall wasn’t shaky on a night when the `Hoos usually had three guards on the floor. He had only one turnover in his 22 minutes.
“It’s good to be able to be out there with him,” Perrantes said. “We came in together, and to play together and be able to shine together, it’s huge just being able to see him next to me.”
Hall said he grew discouraged at times during the season he redshirted, “but that comes with the territory. It was frustrating, but it was about me getting over it and persevering through it, because I knew I could do it.”
Perrantes said: “It was definitely tough for him, but he was a trouper. He’s a team guy. We have a bunch of team guys. He knew his time was going to come. I told him, `It’s not always going to be this tough. You’re not going to always be sitting the bench, riding the bench. Your time is going to come, and you’ve just got to be ready for it.’ ”
To ensure he’d be ready when his opportunity came, Hall put in untold hours with Mike Curtis, UVA’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball.
Hall could dunk in high school, but his explosiveness has improved dramatically during his time at UVA. He credits the time he’s spent under Curtis’ tutelage.
“I was nothing like this [at Cape Henry],” Hall said. “It’s Coach Curtis. Hands down, Coach Curtis. He’s amazing, and I’ve got so much trust in him.”
Curtis returns the praise. Hall “works his butt off. He’s one of our best workers in the weight room,” Curtis said. “He’s engaged in the training process as much as anybody I’ve ever had come through here in the last six-and-a-half, seven years.”
Hall is a chiseled 208 pounds. That hasn’t always been the case. When Hall arrived at UVA, Curtis said, “we could probably say his body composition wasn’t ideal for what our standards are, and I think he’s transformed his body. In addition to that, he’s added some physical tools and qualities that I think have allowed him to be more successful on the court.
“If you looked back when he first got here and just watched him play the game and saw how explosive he was, the way he moved, I think all those things have changed now.
“He’s more explosive, he’s a more efficient mover. He’s come night and day.”
As others have during Bennett’s tenure at UVA, including Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Jack Salt, Hall improved during his year away from competition. The ‘Hoos are hoping to see similar progress from big men Austin Nichols and Mamadi Diakite, neither of whom is playing this season.
“That’s one of the things that we try to preach and educate to [redshirting players],” Curtis said, “that this is their opportunity to kind of bridge the gap from a physical standpoint and from a skill standpoint. Obviously my role is the physical development part of it, but what they have to understand is that you can’t get these days back. So every day that they come in to train and work with a purpose, they put themselves in a better position to play and achieve their dreams and their goals on the court.”
Hall’s older brother, Mark, is a linebacker on the UVA football team. Mark was a redshirt junior this season, and he’ll earn his bachelor’s degree in May. (He’ll compete as a graduate student next season.)
So will his kid brother. Devon, a Media Studies major, has supplemented his fall and spring coursework with summer school and on-line classes, and he’s on track to complete his bachelor’s in May. That will allow him to take two years of graduate school while completing his athletic eligibility.
To earn a degree from UVA in three years is no small feat, but once Hall realized it would be realistic for him to do so, he recalled, “my mom and my dad were like, `Why not?’ Coach Bennett was all right with it, so I was like, `I’m all right with it, too.’ ”
His brother’s reaction?
“I don’t know if he likes that,” Devon said, smiling, “but it’s easier for my parents to come to one graduation.”