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How can Jayden Gardner build on an impressive first season with Virginia?

After their first season without an NCAA tournament berth since 2013, the Virginia Cavaliers are currently set to return seven scholarship players: Kihei Clark, Reece Beekman, Armaan Franklin, Jayden Gardner, Kadin Shedrick, Francisco Caffaro, and Taine Murray.

In this season review series, we’ll take a look back at each player’s performance this year and where each of them stands. At the end, we’ll wrap it up by discussing expectations for each player next season.

Last week, we focused on veteran guard Kihei Clark. This week, we’ll look at fifth-year senior Jayden Gardner, who earned Alll-ACC Third Team honors and led the ‘Hoos in scoring and rebounding in his first season after transferring to Virginia from East Carolina.

When Gardner transferred to Virginia last season, many questioned whether his scoring prowess would translate from East Carolina to the ACC. Gardner’s game of overpowering fellow big men, some speculated, wouldn’t translate to the bigger, more athletic game in a Power 5 conference.

The doubters of his scoring were proven wrong: Gardner paced the ‘Hoos in both points per game (15.3) and rebounds per game (6.4) this season, and he actually scored more points per 100 possessions than in his most recent season with East Carolina. Virginia relied on his isolation scoring to bail them out of poor offensive possessions quite frequently, and Gardner delivered frequently enough to earn an All-ACC Third Team selection.

To make the transition to a bigger, stronger conference, Gardner diversified his offensive game by taking a few steps back from his previous stomping grounds inside the paint and becoming an efficient midrange scorer.

Gardner took more long twos than any player in the ACC — in fact, just two players in college basketball took more long twos than Gardner. Despite the high volume, Gardner still knocked down 45.3% of his long-two attempts, which ranked fourth out of 23 ACC players to attempt 100 long twos. Given how many of his attempts were unassisted from that range, Gardner’s efficiency was very impressive.

He also over-performed expectations on the defensive end — after a rough first few games, Gardner really came into his own within the pack line scheme. The ‘Hoos did their best to avoid lineups where he’d have to play the five (and take on that increased defensive responsibility), and Jayden held up well as a man-to-man defend.

His two best performances of the season on that end were against Duke. As the primary defender on Paolo Banchero, he held the presumptive top-five pick below 10 points in each matchup, a total that Banchero eclipsed in all 37 games against non-Virginia teams.

While Gardner did a very good job filling the high-volume role he was forced into last season due to a dearth of primary scorers around him, the ‘Hoos probably aren’t going to be an elite team if he takes the 7.6 midrange jumpers per game he took this season. They simply aren’t efficient enough attempts — even at a high-quality clip of 45.3%, those attempts only yield 90.6 expected points per 100 possessions, a rate that would be last in the ACC.

Hopefully, adding more capable scoring around Gardner will create more space for him to operate and get to the basket for higher quality looks. While it’s good to know he’s able to kick into a higher gear and knock down tough isolation shots — Exhibit 1: his game-winner against Pittsburgh this season — it’d be nice not to rely on it.

Hopefully, Gardner also continues to find his footing within the pack line. Ideally, he’ll get plenty of reps at center this offseason, in case the ‘Hoos need to go small with him at center and Bennett Vander Plas/Isaac Traudt/Taine Murray at the 4 against five-out lineups.

The added versatility of being able to play Gardner at the five is worthwhile, though the lineup’s size deficiencies will be debilitating against bigger ACC fives like Armando Bacot (not that Kadin Shedrick or Francisco Caffaro did much to slow down Bacot anyway).

Finally, there’s always the three-point wildcard. It’s unfair to expect Gardner to fully revamp his game and move beyond the arc in year five, and the marginal utility of him developing a three isn’t that great. But he did show flashes early last season of being able to knock down triples and spoke in the offseason about wanting to add that to his game from him. Even just one or two three-pointers per game might force opponents to take an extra step out on Gardner and in turn create room for players like Reece Beekman to get downhill.

All in all, Gardner may be Virginia’s best known quantity heading into the 2022-2023 season. The improvements he can make will make the team better, but the value he’ll bring will likely more so be in the form of helping to bring along the younger players to raise the team’s overall ceiling.

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