Aug. 3, 2016
CHARLOTTESVILLE — When University of Virginia guard Darius Thompson banked in a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer Jan. 26 at Lawrence Joel Coliseum, a stunned silence settled over the thousands of Wake Forest fans in the stands.
A tall, lanky kid from down the road in Durham, N.C., had a different reaction inside the Demon Deacons’ arena.
“I was running up and down the stairs, high-fiving some of the UVA fans that were there,” Jay Huff recalled with a smile.
Then a senior at Voyager Academy in Durham, Huff is now in his first year at Virginia, where in June he joined the basketball team he was cheering for that winter night in Winston-Salem.
It shows Huff, in the men’s practice gym at John Paul Jones Arena, sprinting in from halfcourt, leaping from the foul line and then throwing down a one-handed dunk. ESPN, on its Instagram page, showed it alongside similar slams by, ahem, Julius Erving and Michael Jordan.
“I’ve dunked from maybe a step inside,” Huff said, “and I did it pretty easily, so I felt like I could get it from the foul line. We were just kind of goofing around, and I said I could dunk from the free-throw line, and they didn’t believe me, so I did it.”
The Wahoos’ staff, including head coach Tony Bennett, has seen the video.
“I told Jay, `Now you better be able to back that up, because people are going to be expecting you to do that all the time,’ ” associate head coach Ron Sanchez said, laughing. “So every time he goes to finish a play in practice and he has one hand on the ball and it gets tipped or deflected, Coach is on him about it: `Oh, so you think this is a SportsCenter clip.’ “
Huff, who sported a slick Seattle SuperSonics T-shirt during a recent interview, is the tallest player on the UVA roster.
In his bare feet, Huff said, “I’m definitely well past 6-11. So with shoes, I’m at least 7-foot.”
He’s still as lean as he is tall, however, though he’s making progress on that front. When he committed to the Cavaliers in May 2015, Huff weighed about 180 pounds.
By the end of his senior season at Voyager Academy, where he played for his father, Mike, in 2014-15 and 2015-16, Huff was around 190. He’s close to 210 now.
Bulking up is a priority for Huff, one of four freshmen in the program, along with Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome. Huff works closely with Mike Curtis, UVA’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball, and Randy Bird, UVA’s director of sports nutrition.
“Whenever I have a free moment and I’m not doing anything, I usually try to have at least some type of snack,” Huff said. “And definitely at meals, like at dinner after practice is over, I try to eat plenty. Coach Curtis has told me, `You can literally eat whatever you want,’ though, obviously, I’m not going to go eat an entire package of Oreos.”
Voyager Academy plays in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s Class 1A, which comprises the state’s smallest schools, and Huff didn’t always face strong competition during his prep career. That’s one reason Virginia put him through an extended evaluation period before offering Huff a scholarship.
“We wanted to make sure, if we were going to pursue him aggressively, that this was a level where he could have success,” Sanchez said. “We needed to watch him play a little more, considering that with his high school it’s not the most competitive basketball. We needed to watch him play against a couple guys with length and size and see how he performed there.
“His physical makeup is his physical makeup, but one thing you can’t take away from him is his skill set and his length.”
Indeed, Huff does much more than dunk on the court. He’s in many ways a prototypical stretch-4 — a power forward who operates more on the perimeter than in the low post — and shows excellent form on a jump shot that he’s comfortable taking from beyond the 3-point arc.
“This is obviously a big learning curve for him,” Sanchez said after a recent practice, “but actually he looks a lot bigger now than he did when we recruited him. Not only physically, but also his height. I think he’s grown since we first started evaluating him. But he’s tall and he can make shots. I’ve seen him make his jump shot consistently. I knew that he could shoot it. I wasn’t aware of how well he shot it. So that’s been a pleasant surprise.”
In his final high school game, Huff totaled 14 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocked shots to lead Voyager Academy to its first Class 1A state title.
Both of his parents are former college basketball players: Kathy Huff at West Virginia and Mike Huff at Pacific Lutheran.
Asked about playing for his father, Huff said, “It was tough. At times we got on each other’s nerves, but it was also great. It was a great experience, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
When Huff committed to Virginia, it seemed likely that he would redshirt in 2016-17, largely because of his slight frame. That decision is on hold.
“Honestly, he’s a different player now than he was when we first recruited him, so we don’t know where he’s going to be when we start [practice] in September,” Sanchez said.
“We’re going to evaluate our team and evaluate our needs. A team always has a need for a guy that can stretch out the defense and make some baskets. At the end of the day we’re going to do what’s best for Jay and his future, and also what’s best for the program. What that is, I don’t really know yet. But we’re excited about him and his ability and his work ethic.
“He’s a great kid. He wants to learn. He’s eager to learn. He’s eager to be good, so I’m excited to work with him.”
Huff, whose sister attends Appalchian State, turns 19 this month. It’s accurate to describe him as a late bloomer, he said, “because I haven’t fully grown into my body yet. Basketball-wise, shooting has always been kind of consistent with me, but a lot of my other skills and stuff I’ve had to work on, basically by just getting stronger.”
What role he’ll play for the Cavaliers in 2016-17 “kind of depends on how the summer and the time leading up to the season goes,” Huff said.
“If I redshirt, I don’t see it as a negative thing. Obviously I would like to play if I would potentially get minutes. But if the coaches think that what’s best for me is to redshirt, then I’m 100 percent on board with that.”
During the second session of summer school at Virginia, Huff took a class called Viewing the South. He said he’s likely to pursue the Youth & Social Innovation major in UVA’s Curry School of Education.
“I want to be a youth pastor someday, so I think that would be at least a good starting point, and then maybe later in life I would go back to school for seminary,” said Huff, who was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes during high school.
Born and raised in Durham, Huff is enjoying life in Charlottesville, which reminds him of his hometown in many ways.
“I love it,” he said. “It’s a great town.”