Salt Evolving Into Pivotal Presence
Oct. 17, 2017
CHARLOTTESVILLE — After a 30-hour journey that started in his hometown of Auckland, New Zealand, Jack Salt arrived in this college town on May 19, 2014. A towering figure in an unfamiliar land, he moved in with two of his new University of Virginia teammates, Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon.
Not long after, the 6-11 Salt took the court at John Paul Jones Arena for a workout with the 6-8 Gill, one of the ACC’s premier post players. To call it a mismatch might be an understatement.
“Coming from New Zealand, there’s not many big guys that can move that well, and just going up against A.G. was definitely a jolt,” Salt recalled Monday afternoon at JPJ. “I was like, `Wow, this is going to be a long [process].’ “
Indeed, there’s been nothing meteoric about Salt’s rise as a Cavalier. In 2014-15, as he worked to adjust to the speed of the college game, he redshirted. In 2015-16, he played in 22 of Virginia’s 37 games, averaging 6.6 minutes, 1.6 points and 1.1 rebounds.
As a redshirt sophomore, however, Salt broke through. He started all 34 games for a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second round. His averages weren’t eye-popping last season — 3.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game — but he freed his teammates with jarring picks and blossomed into an imposing defensive presence in the low post.
“He’s moved the needle every year to get better,” UVA head coach Tony Bennett said of Salt, now a chiseled 250-pounder.
In the Wahoos’ final game last season — a loss to Florida — Salt scored eight points (two under his career high) and grabbed a career-best 10 rebounds.
“He’s come a long way,” assistant Jason Williford said. “He’s still a work in progress, but he [brings] physicality, toughness — he’s relentless in that regard — and he works his tail off.
“He belongs. He absolutely belongs. He passes. He’s got a decent feel for the game. We’re just constantly working on his touch.”
His teammates and coaches have long understood Salt’s value to the program. The public received a reminder Monday. At the Cavaliers’ media day, Bennett announced the team’s captains in 2017-18: fifth-year senior guard Devon Hall, senior forward Isaiah Wilkins and Salt.
Bennett, who’s heading into his ninth season at UVA, typically does not appoint captains.
“Usually we kind of just let it happen organically with guys that go out there [and lead],” Bennett said. “But this year I wanted to, because Isaiah’s a natural leader, Devon’s a natural leader, and so is Jack Salt.
“These guys have put a lot of time and energy into this program, and they’ve been through so many experiences … I think we have three excellent voices in practice and I would assume, obviously, in the locker room.”
Wilkins, like Hall, is heading into his third season as a starter. Those two were obvious candidates for captains. But Salt “might have been an easier pick for Coach Bennett,” Hall said.
“He’s a force. Jack is somebody everybody on this team respects and has a lot of love for. Probably one of the nicest dudes I’ve ever met off the court. He leads by example every single day. He gives you everything he has. Every ounce he has, he gives it out on the court every single day.”
That Salt was named one of the Cavaliers’ captains “speaks to his effort,” Wilkins said, “and also to how he leads by example. He’s one of the hardest-working guys on this team. It was really cool to see Coach Bennett break that down for us.”
For his part, Salt said Hall and Wilkins “are the guys I look up to on the team, so I really think of them as like the top captains, and I’m just kind of there to help with the young guys.
“We’ve definitely had a lot of great leaders in the past, and it’s awesome to be even considered with the likes of those guys. But we’ve got the same mission every year. We do the same things, [play the] same defense, so it’s really just enforcing the values that Coach gives to us every season.”
Salt attended Westlake Boys High in Auckland, a school whose alumni include Kirk Penney, a gifted guard who went on to play two seasons in the NBA. Penney starred for the University of Wisconsin when Bennett was an assistant there, and they’ve remained close.
Back in his native New Zealand, Penney was among those impressed by a big, raw, aggressive young player he’d seen in Auckland. And so Penney recommended Salt to Bennett.
“Kirk was pretty much spot on with what his evaluation was,” Bennett said. “You never can project [with 100-percent accuracy], and he didn’t say, `Hey, he’s going to be a 20-and-10 guy for you.’ But he said, `When you play that hard and you’re that much of a team guy, there’s got to be a place for 6-10 guys with that kind of physicality.’ “
After visiting Charlottesville with his mother, Salt committed to Virginia in September 2013. He enrolled at UVA the following May and immediately won over his new coaches.
“He was such a hard worker, such a polite young man,” Bennett said.
Salt’s first workout with the coaching staff has become the stuff of legend at JPJ. After the session, Williford recalled Monday, Salt “shook each coach’s hands and said, `Thank you for the lovely workout,’ in his New Zealand accent.”
Bennett smiled when he recounted the scene. “You don’t hear too many guys his size say, `Thanks for the lovely workout.’ “
Salt and Wilkins are roommates for the fourth straight year, and they’ve forged a friendship that will endure long after they leave Charlottesville.
“I love that dude,” Wilkins said. “I really appreciate him.”
A serious illness sapped Wilkins’ strength late in the 2016-17 season, and he played only five minutes in the NCAA tournament, all in the Cavaliers’ first-round win over UNC Wilmington. Salt was less than 100 percent last season, too, though he didn’t miss any games.
“His back was hurting,” Wilkins said. “He wasn’t really saying much about it, just because I was down and we were down a lot of guys. So he sucked it up.”
Bennett said: “People don’t know what he played through last year. His back was really troubling him. He had a lot of issues, and he just gutted through it at the end, and we were running a little bit on fumes with Isaiah [ailing] and then with him. But he’ll run through a wall for you.”
An anthropology major, Salt is on track to earn his bachelor’s degree in the spring. He plans to compete for the `Hoos as a graduate student in 2018-19.
Leaving New Zealand in 2014 was a gamble for Salt, and he’s grateful for the coaching staff’s faith in him.
“It was definitely a tough decision to come here, because I knew it was such a high level,” Salt said. “But I guess I did feel like I owed it to them to put the work in and show them that I was able to play here. It’s been tough, but I’m definitely excited for this year and my future here.”
His back feels much better, and Salt is again practicing with his trademark zeal, banging in the post and disrupting ball screens on defense.
“He didn’t do a lot of stuff in the summer and [early in the semester], but now he’s kind of found a groove and he’s confident and he’s playing well,” Wilkins said.
Salt shot 55.9 percent from the floor in 2016-17, when he rarely attempted anything other than layups or dunks, but hit only 48.9 percent of his free throws (22 of 45). He’s improved his shooting form this year, though, with better results from the line in practice.
“I work on it,” Salt said. “The coaches are great. They’re always giving me advice, and I know I’m not so good at it, so I need to put work in it. So the coaches have been good at helping me out, and I’m trying to get the reps.”
Salt remains unpolished offensively and is unlikely to ever become a big scorer for the Cavaliers. Still, he’s “getting better with his finishing and even some moves inside,” Bennett said. “Jack’s just evolved, and he wants to make things work.”
Big No. 33 has improved as a roommate, too, according to Wilkins.
“He was super messy earlier, but he’s a very tidy guy now,” Wilkins said, laughing. “I got him right.”