Editor's note: There are plenty of new faces in college basketball. But don't lose sight of those who are back for more. This week, we look at returning players who will have a big impact on their teams this season. Today: Virginia's Anthony Gill.
Anthony Gill is not interested in magic. He is, however, interested in pranks. He stretches clear tape across teammates' doorways and dabs Vaseline on their door handles. He occasionally poured water on outgoing senior forward and roommate Darion Atkins while Atkins was sleeping. Atkins began locking his door, but Gill learned how to pick locks and got in anyway. He once invented a family pet -- a two-headed Siamese cat -- for the sake of an interview.
And, maybe best of all, there's this: In 2012-13, when he was a transfer redshirt in his first year at Virginia, Gill "told a sportswriter he was a magician in his spare time," the Daily Progress wrote in 2014. The writer "believed him and started planning a feature story about Gill’s love of magic," according to the Progress story.
As far as we can tell, this story did not make it to publication, which is good, because publishing incorrect things -- even as the victim of a lighthearted prank -- can be hazardous to a reporter's continued prospects of employment. It is probably fair, then, to also assume that Gill is merciful, since he didn't let this nameless reporter go too far down the rabbit-hat hole.
You probably didn't know this about Anthony Gill, and that's fair. These are obscure personality traits, after all; you'd have to follow the Cavaliers awfully closely to hear much about them. But you probably also didn't know that Gill is one of the very best interior players -- and one of the most important returning veterans, at any position, on any team -- in college basketball. He is the 2015 offseason's least heralded, most slept-on All-American candidate.
This is less forgivable.
It's also not hard to understand. Gill's excellent junior season was obscured not only by Virginia's early exit in March, but by the systematic sloth of the Cavaliers' play. The Cavaliers averaged just 58.6 possessions per game. They were one of the slowest teams in the sport. If you ignored that stylistic tendency when looking at Gill's per-game averages (11.6 points, 6.5 rebounds), you might see little more than an above-average power forward on a very good, very well-rounded team.
Gill was far better than that. He led Virginia in both usage rate (25.1 percent) and overall offensive efficiency (122.3 offensive rating). He grabbed 15.5 percent of available offensive rebounds, the 13th-highest mark in the country, and one made all the more impressive by the fact that Gill was often competing for the same rebounds with Atkins and center Mike Tobey, both excellent rebounders in their own rights.
Gill shot 58.4 percent from the field. He drew 5.7 fouls per game and shot 144 free throws to his 244 field goals. He led the Cavs in both post-up possessions (108) and points per post-up (.935), according to Synergy scouting data. He was a constant source of consistent, hard-nosed interior offense all season, and he became even more crucial -- and more productive -- when perimeter threat Justin Anderson lost the final few weeks of the regular season to injury.
In every way, Gill significantly improved from his sophomore to junior seasons. And he did all of this for the outright ACC champs, who lost exactly one game before March 7, who plowed through Anderson's injury in February and who were the clear and deserving 1B to undefeated Kentucky's 1A for almost the entire season.
By the end of the season, Gill ranked No. 7 in Ken Pomeroy's player of the year metric, ahead of Jerian Grant, D'Angelo Russell and Kyle Wiltjer. You can quibble with the precise order or the mathematical nuts and bolts, if you're so inclined. At the very least, that ranking expresses a vision of Gill's value that is far closer to reality than what Gill was credited for throughout 2014-15.
The question now, of course, is whether Gill has one final leap to take.
On offense, the one hole in his game remains outside-in shooting. Gill was excellent around the rim, finishing efficiently from post-ups, seals, cuts and offensive rebounds. He even acquitted himself well on the handful of possessions (23, per Synergy) when he received the ball in a pick and roll. But his spot-up shooting was unreliable; Gill attempted just 24 pure spot-up shots all season and scored just 18 points from them. Adding the ability to occasionally stretch the defense would not only make Gill a more potent offensive weapon, it would help UVa's precise offense from becoming bogged down in the way that hurt it so dearly after Anderson got hurt. (Or maybe Brogdon, London Perrantes, Evan Nolte and Marial Shayok all will shoot better and Gill can carry on crashing the offensive glass. Whatever works.)
The other area for improvement lies on the defensive end. That might sound weird, considering Virginia was 2014-15's best defensive team and Gill was on the floor for a lot of those stops. He's hardly a bad defender. The problem is that Atkins was UVa's best defender, or at least its best interior defensive force, and the weight of that departure will at least in part fall on Gill's shoulders.
Atkins was a better defensive rebounder. He was also a legitimate shot-blocker. Tobey, also a rising senior, can do a lot of this stuff, and sophomore Isaiah Wilkins will integrate into Tony Bennett's system too. Let's be real: This is going to be a great defensive team no matter what. But if it is going to be the best defense in the country for the second straight season, Gill might have to bring even more on that end of the floor.
It's a lot to ask of one player. But Gill is capable of a lot -- more than you probably realized. Maybe he'll learn magic, too. It would make for a great feature.