By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — At the end of a 30-hour journey that started in New Zealand, Jack Salt arrived at the University of Virginia in May 2014, ready for the next stage of his life to begin. In a new country, surrounded mostly by strangers, Salt was unsure what lay ahead for him.
“I had no idea what it was going to be like here,” he recalled Thursday afternoon at John Paul Jones Arena. “I went on one visit here” — in September 2013 — “but you can only get so much from two days, you know?”
A 6-11 center, Salt had great size for a basketball player, but he lacked the extensive background in the sport that his new teammates at UVA possessed. In New Zealand, players such as Steven Adams are rare, and hoops ranks behind several other sports in popularity. But Salt was, and remains, a willing and eager learner, and that’s helped him carve out an important role in a prominent college program.
“Jack is one of the more hard-working, relentless workers we’ve had,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said.
Salt routinely leaves the practice court with his shirt drenched in sweat, and if he struggles, it’s never because of a lack of effort. In practice Tuesday, at JPJ, he knocked over a row of empty seats on the sideline while trying to track down a loose ball.
Now a redshirt sophomore, the 247-pound Salt has started every game this season for 19th-ranked Virginia (12-3 overall, 2-2 ACC), which meets Clemson (11-5, 1-3) at noon Saturday at Littlejohn Coliseum. He’s averaging 4.6 points and 3.8 rebounds per game.
Some matchups favor him more than others — against a smaller Pitt lineup, he played only 110 seconds on Jan. 4 — but his coaches know that for however long he’s on the court, Salt will give all he has.
“Jack’s newer to the game, but he just kind of wills and works his way,” Bennett said. “You can’t always judge Jack on how it looks. You’ve got to try to judge him on his productivity. You look at how many guys he gets open with his screens, how many balls he’ll keep alive with an offensive rebound, how physical he is on the other post [player] defensively.
“There’s usually a nice plus/minus with Jack. He usually comes out ahead with his whole body of work. He’s improved from when he got here to now, and I expect that to continue.”
How Salt became a Cavalier is an intriguing story in which George Raveling and Kirk Penney, both of whom have ties to Bennett, were principal characters.
Raveling, director of international basketball for Nike, is, like Bennett, a former Washington State head coach. Penney, who’s from Auckland, New Zealand, starred at guard for Wisconsin when Bennett was an assistant there, and they’ve remained close.
Both Raveling and Penney recommended to Bennett, who played and coached in New Zealand, that he look hard at a big, raw prospect from Auckland named Jack Salt. (Penney still plays professionally in New Zealand, where his teammates, as chance would have it, include former UVA big man Akil Mitchell.)
“They said, `He will be one of your hardest workers,’ ” Bennett said. “When you’re 6-10 or whatever, and that strong and work that hard, there’s a place for you. Jack made us better in practice when he was redshirting [in 2014-15], and he’s helped us in games.
“A guy who’s that willing to screen and get people open, to be that cognizant of help defense and be a warrior on the glass, there are always places where he helps, and I think he’s shown that this year.”
Salt has become a fan favorite at JPJ, and he provided one of the Cavaliers’ highlights Sunday night in their 79-62 win over Wake Forest.
With 8:31 left, Salt threw down a thunderous putback dunk on a miss by guard Darius Thompson and was fouled on the play. For the season, Salt is shooting only 55 percent from the line, but he made the free throw, and suddenly Virginia had a six-point lead.
“Just seeing Jack get some hustle points like that is huge for his confidence and huge for everybody,” Virginia guard London Perrantes said.
“Best play of the game,” another UVA guard, Marial Shayok, said of Salt’s dunk. “That was real nice. I like to see him do that.”
Shayok, a junior from Canada, has lived with Salt since they arrived at UVA in 2014: first in a dorm and now in an off-Grounds apartment they share with junior forward Isaiah Wilkins.
Salt and Shayok were known early in their college careers for their good-natured bickering with each other, but those squabbles are less frequent now.
“We’ve kind of matured now,” Shayok said with a smile Tuesday.
Asked how his roommate has changed in his two-plus years at UVA, Shayok said, “He’s become a little more Americanized. Now he listens to hip hop. He was into Lorde when he got here.”
Salt clarified his friend’s comment. “I always listened to hip hop,” Salt said, “but when I first came here, I had to rep the New Zealand artists. There’s not many, so I had to rock Lorde. But [Shayok has] definitely got me into some wider options of music.”
His roommates have also helped Salt’s knowledge of the game improve.
“He watches a lot of basketball now, more than he watched before he got to America,” Shayok said. “We watch a lot of NBA at home, and he’s learning a lot more.”
When Salt came to UVA, one of the school’s rowers, Hannah Osborne, was a Kiwi, and they were close. Osborne is no longer at the University, but rower Alice Darry and field hockey player Anzel Viljoen are from New Zealand, and Salt knows them both.
He doesn’t make it back to New Zealand often, but he had a homecoming of sorts in December when Virginia played in Berkeley, California. Among the fans at Cal’s Haas Pavilion, where the `Hoos won 56-52, were Salt’s mother, sister, stepfather and stepbrother, along with an aunt, uncle and two cousins.
All flew in from New Zealand to see Salt play and then celebrated Christmas with him in San Francisco.
“I hadn’t played in front of them for like three years, so it was pretty good to have them all out there,” Salt said.
New Zealand has only one ESPN station, Salt said, so his friends and family rarely get to watch him play. But his mother, Maria Anstis, religiously tunes in to the Cavaliers’ radio broadcasts on-line at VirginiaSports.com while keeping up with game stats on her iPad.
“She listens every time,” Salt said.
An anthropology major, Salt is on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in May 2018, after which he plans to enroll “either in the Curry School [of Education], because I enjoy teaching, or maybe the Commerce School, which will be hard to get into it.”
On the court, Salt said, “I still feel like I can improve in all areas. I’m just happy I’m at this program and I can keep improving every season and every summer. I just want to keep getting better.”
Bennett noted that other ACC big men, including former Miami center Tonye Jekiri, made significant strides during their college careers.
“When they started out, they were OK, and they just slowly became better and better, and they became a force,” Bennett said.
Salt may never become a consistent low-post scorer for the Cavaliers, but his value to the team is considerable, his teammates say.
“He’s a tough guy down low, ” Shayok said, “just physical and one of the best screeners we have on the team. He’s huge for us guards getting open. We’ve all got to improve in everything we do, but I would say he has to continue to finish and just play as hard as he can.”
When he arrived in the United States, Salt could not have predicted how much he’d play for the Cavaliers. He was determined, though, to persevere and complete his eligibility at UVA.
“It’s a big difference coming from New Zealand to here,” Salt recalled. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t know if I was going to like it being hard or if I was not going to like it here. But I love it here, and the people are awesome, so I’m definitely happy I chose [Virginia]. It’s been an awesome experience.”