Tracking a Transfer: Ben Vander Plas

Over the weekend, 6’8″ Ohio PF Ben Vander Plas, who may already have spent plenty of time on grounds within the headspace of its student body (Sam Hauser, especially), announced he would be transferring to UVa for his Super Senior season. The writing seemed to be on the wall for this one given all of his well-established ties to the Bennett family. It felt like this was destined.

It’s an exciting add and is one that directly backfills for the vacancy left by Igor Milicic Jr. While Vander Plas won’t have the option for the same longevity and likely doesn’t have quite the same upside, he no doubt has the experience and the ability to contribute immediately as we appear to be in full “run it back” mode this season, augmented by a few new faces. Certainly, what he brings will be more impactful on the court for this year, at least. Vander Plas adds a variety of skills that I will go into below.

How will he be utilized and where will he fit with the roster? Ostensibly, he would back up Jayden Gardner at the 4 and offer a small ball option at 5, which is something that many were hoping the 6’10” Isaac Traudt would provide in his first season. Certainly, now, Traudt won’t have to be ready as quickly. Is that a good or bad thing within the new transfer landscape? Time will tell; but through the below I’d like to posit another hypothetical option that could make this a better fit than it may initially appear.

When looking at tape I think it’s better to view players like this through a couple of lenses. First and foremost, who was their best and most athletic competition and how did they play against them? They will certainly encounter teams like that in the ACC. Additionally, I think it’s helpful to see how they played against some of the best teams in their conference, and how those teams who are familiar with the player choose to approach them. So, for the most useful comparisons, I chose to watch their full games @Kentucky, @LSU, @Akron, who won the MAC tournament, and also their loss to Kent State in the MAC Semi-Final game. I’m only going to be focusing on this past season because it’s the most recent and accurate sample of his play and because I think most of us well-remember parts of his game from the season prior…

First, Some Words About Ohio

Ohio plays a very different system than UVa. While our tempo is always near the last in the NCAA, Ohio was around the middle of the pack. They had a team full of players seemingly hunting their own shot, all of which were willing to pull the trigger from deep. They ran a lot of isolation plays, primarily for Mark Sears (who the ball would stick with a lot and with whom I was very unimpressed), Vander Plas (BVP from here), and their other 6’8″ Forward Jason Carter. They also ran a lot of pick and pops or flares since most of their guys were willing shooters, their big men and PG especially. They would occasionally duck some cutters or post players into that open space left by their spacing. It seemed as though their offensive strategy was to rotate the guys they ran the offense through until someone got hot, ride the hot hand until it cooled, and then alter the point of attack. This created some really hot runs and really cold runs for BVP as he’d get fed when he was on but the ball could get stuck in a black hole, otherwise. I imagine there will be a lot of opportunities for him within our offense as we may often be looking for him to create something at the end of a shot clock, similar to a Sam Hauser or a Jayden Gardner but with range. I also imagine that he’s going to love playing with pass-first PGs like Kihei and Reece, as they will be certainly looking to set him up prior to hunting their own look.

The defense is going to be a huge adjustment. Individually, he can be a crafty and effective defender, especially in the post, but he also struggles in other areas and there’s going to be a lot from a team defense perspective and a fundamental perspective. Ohio, unsurprisingly, wasn’t nearly as schooled or practiced on team defensive man-to-man concepts or execution and even ran zone at times (I’d approximate around 10-15% of the time).

Ohio won the Akron game and lost the rest of these four, generally being under-athletic in all of the games, although there were stretches where they played all of them close. There were also stretches where BVP played not only like the best player on his own team, but like the best player on the entire court. Much of the first half against Kentucky, and a really hot stretch in the second half against LSU standing out especially. When the skill level in these games were at their highest, he tended to rise to the top because of his individual skill, while many of his teammates would struggle against the athleticism. There were many stretches, though, where he would just kind of disappear as an after-thought on offense and where his defensive play would really suffer. So, without further ado, let’s talk about some aspects of his game in more detail…

Offense:

Shooting!

This is the headliner, right? 6’8″ stretch Power Forward is always the lead in when talking about BVP, and some of the reports have even started talking about how deep his range is. What stood out to me when watching him was not only how deep his range is, and how well he can shoot with a hard contest, but it was also the many different ways in which he gets into his shots.

BVP was the best player on the floor in the first half against Kentucky, scoring most of his 19 points in the game and keeping them close going into the half. It helped that Oscar Tshiebwe got two early fouls and sat most of the first half so BVP was guarded mostly by the less imposing Keion Brooks Jr. (#12) or, occasionally by Bryce Hopkins (#23). This shot shows off BVP’s insane range after a couple of exchanges he spots up around the UK logo and drills the NBA+ range three. It was interesting watching him vs. Kentucky and LSU who did not respect the range of his shot as much – he did most of his damage from outside vs. them. Comparatively, both conference opponents were much more aggressive about where they’d pick him up from the outside, which opened up increased driving/cutting opportunities for both BVP and his teammates. More to come on that later…

This is just a little screen and a flare, but the range at which he flares, out almost to the logo again, makes it very hard to defend and lulls the defender into thinking it isn’t as much of a threat.

When I tell you BVP is a streaky shooter, I can’t over-emphasize that enough. He takes so many “no, no, no, YES!” type shots. But when he’s on, not only is it potent, but it warps how the team has to play. Notice on this play he comes off a pin down screen near the three point line. The screener rolls toward the basket and is WIDE open because both UK players are worried about BVP’s shot at this point. BVP wants to make that pass, but the roller isn’t actually looking for the ball. Instead, BVP simply jab steps and fires from range, drilling another.

Now, we move to the LSU game, where BVP led his team with 12 points and all 12 were on 4 three pointers in a short period of time in the second half where he just went off. He was 0-8 from the field the rest of the game and LSU actually started this game ahead 14-0 and then 21-3. Ohio didn’t score for the first 8 minutes of the game. The last of these threes from BVP we’ll see tied the game at 37 and then the Bobcats mostly went away from him as LSU pulled away.

This opens the second half and you see two things on display here from BVP. Firstly, he catches the ball in the post, reads the double, and finds a quality cross-court pass. His passing and vision are very good, which we’ll talk about in a bit, but this was a teaser of that. Then you see him just fade back away from the block out past the three point line toward the LSU logo, eventually catch a pass late in the shot clock and drill another deep three over a late contest. At first when watching this, I would question his tendency to be so far beyond the arc on these, but if you watch the play closely, the fact that he was so far out is what made it so difficult on the contest. A catch just outside of the three point line and the shot would have actually been more difficult. This goes back to these NBA-level spacing concepts where the ability to shoot the deep three opens up many options for an offense.

Here’s an example of lack of familiarity from the opponent. We might benefit for this at least pre-conference play and potentially even early on within conference play. BVP spends most of this possession attempting to post up, which lulls his defender into a sense of security. As the ball rotates, he just floats from the block up to the three-point line and catches/takes a three pointer in rhythm. His defender simply doesn’t recognize the danger enough to get out on him.

This is just so hard to defend. BVP gets a long rebound and resets, realizing that a smaller man has picked him up after the rebound, he posts up at the three-point line, catches, and really just steps back and launches because of the recognized height advantage. This is, once again, NBA-style confidence in his shot as well as mismatch exploitation. You will see tall shooters in the league perform this outside post to get the ball all of the time.

All four of these LSU shots were within less than six minutes of game time. As such, the LSU defender jumps past BVP on the pump fake and he’s able to just calmly step up and knock down his last triple of the game.

This is likely the biggest strength of his all-around game which fits perfectly into our biggest issue, which is not having the shooting to stretch out a defense. I think he’s going to benefit from playing within our offense quite a bit, both because the team is going to look for him more often to hit a late shot, and also because he likely won’t have to press as much to get his share of looks. Occasionally, he would really test those heat checks or take less than ideal shots to try to get himself into a rhythm.

This is right after he hit his first three against LSU and it’s not a bad shot, he’s open. But the urgency with which he created the separation and was looking to shoot so early in the shot clock definitely felt like he was pressing to get going.

This was after he’d hit a couple against LSU again and you can just tell from this possession that he was going to shoot no matter once. Posted hard twice and just turned around and launched the three-pointer. Definite heat check. Not a good shot. Hopefully something he won’t feel like he needs to do within the flow of our offense.

This one’s just way too deep and way too early in the possession and wouldn’t compliment the kind of offensive flow CTB is trying to establish. He’ll have to ween himself off of this kind of shot.

The difference between this shot against Kent State and some of the earlier ones against Kentucky is simply that he didn’t make it. He’s spotting up well beyond the three-point line here hoping to pull his man away from helping on the Sears threat to drive. When he doesn’t, it’s correct for BVP to shoot this shot (although he probably could have been a little closer here and still had a good look). He has the range to do so and it’s 20 seconds into the shot clock. That being said, be prepared as fans to see some of these deep misses this coming year and know that it comes with the territory.

All-in-all, having a player with this combination of height, and DEEP range shooting is going to be a big positive change for this team. It’s surely the largest reason that we brought him on board despite the apparent crunch at the 4 position. It reminds me a lot of Ty Jerome and how he’d translate his range to catch opponents off guard, but at the PF position it has the increased potential for potency in that area. Some coaching will also go a long way here. Fewer early shots will be necessary and less one-on-one ball from the rest of the team will help him feel less urgent to hunt looks that he doesn’t need to. Ohio didn’t run very many pin down screens for him, but they did run some (one of which was featured above). He should be very effective both screening for the ball handler and popping out to range or coming off of ball screens and being able to look for his shot.

Passing

BVP is a very talented and accomplished passer who plays with fantastic vision and uses both his shooting ability and his ability to create mismatches in the post to find open looks.

Carter misses the shot here but this was a common look across all of the games I saw. BVP either backing a player down from the three point line, which he often did, or working in the post. Once he draws the double team he loves to do this jump back move where he quickly surveys the floor and can either shoot a fade away or whip a quick overhead pass. In this instance, he turns away from the double and catches Carter flashing open and hits him for the wide open jumper.

The Kent State game was an entirely different look for BVP. Against Kentucky and LSU he attempted a combined zero foul shots and made his living mostly on the perimeter (with some exceptions against Kentucky). Against Kent State, he had a positive size advantage and they shaded his outside shot more. Here, he posted regularly and took 10 free throws just in this game alone. I imagine we’re likely to see more of what he brought against the SEC schools within ACC play, but we should still see some of the above. He posts up, methodically probes the paint, and then finds his man with a quality high-low pass.

Shades of Kihei here. BVP once again posts up but this time spins baseline, keeps good vision, collects himself, and makes a great pass to a cutter down the lane.

This is another example of that great cross-court passing ability. Notice how he catches this ball in roughly the same area as the other two examples, but this time almost immediately flips an on-target cross-court pass for an open look. We saw him do this earlier and he does this often. He’s quite accurate with these and diagnoses them very fast. More, they usually arrive with zip which allows his teammates maximum time to act prior to the defense reacting. Here’s one more example of this against Kentucky:

He’s there for the kick out at the three-point line and, with the defense rotating, zips a quick cross-court pass into the corner to allow for the three.

There were times when he’d get a bit reckless with his passing, especially when the defense was shading him hard to keep him from comfortable areas.

Here’s one example where the defense is cheating almost entirely to shade his right-hand drive and to keep him out of the lane. He forces a pass into traffic that ends up staying with Sears, but was a turnover waiting to happen. Every now and again, a play like this would happen where he forced a difficult pass into a turnover, but normally at the end of games where the team was pressing to put a comeback together.

All-in-all, we’re starting to see a picture of how his full-court vision and ability to analyze a defense with his back to the basket are useful weapons to augment his ability to stretch a defense or force a mismatch inside.

Isolation

BVP struggles at times with footspeed and doesn’t have elite ACC athleticism, but his ability to shoot with accuracy from all over the floor, augmented by his 6’8″ frame, means that defenders have to press up on him more than they normally would. This allows for some driving opportunities, both those that catch the defender off guard, and those slower, controlled drives that wear a defense down.

This is against Kentucky again and BVP has already hit some of those logo threes at this point. When he catches the ball, Keion Brooks gets out on him aggressively, pressing him so as to deny any shot opportunities. This is a very slow developing drive, but it’s one BVP is able to execute due to how little of a cushion Johnson allowed himself to recover. He is controlled throughout with a quality finish around the rim.

This is just a pretty solid first step and power drive against Kent State, who knows his shooting prowess and is playing up on him. He notices the help side defense to the middle and is able to use his frame to create space for the finish after he gets the initial advantage. Note, this is also executed off of another post near the three-point line.

This one caught my eye. Looks like another flare screen into a dribble handoff at the elbow extended, but instead BVP fakes the pass and carries through with the blowby and then finishes with the impressive reverse dunk. Some athleticism around the rim but this play also highlights how crafty he can be playing from outside-in.

I love this one against Kentucky because this is the kind of player who can just go and get you a bucket. We’ve seen him posting from the three-point line and here, once again, he’s pulling his back down dribble from out there only this time he pulls an absolutely dirty mid-range fade-away out of his bag. It’s the kind of complete offensive game that makes the defender never know exactly what’s coming.

To this point, we’ve mostly seen BVP’s perimeter game, but he can also be effective in the traditional post.

I don’t expect him to have as many size mismatches in the ACC as he got at times against Akron, but here he sets many screens throughout the flow of the offense. Always a threat to pop outside, eventually he just ducks into the lane, shields his man, and finishes around the rim.

He got fouled twice on this play and neither were called. The second player through whom he finished over, was Oscar Tshiebwe. So it’s great to see that he can absolutely be a threat to score inside even against one of the most physical big men in the country.

I pulled out the highlights above to focus on his complete game. Offensively, BVP gives CTB lots of options. As a stretch 4, I could see a lot of him as the primary ball screener for Reece or Kihei and then flaring for a three point shot, contrasted with Shedrick’s dives to the rim. He could be solid with pin down screens for the 2-3 and then either posting or just kind of wandering out to the three point line for a clear out or to take a shot of his own. But what’s most interesting to me about his offensive game is how he could also play a stretch 5, clearing out space for Gardner to go one-on-one inside and being ready for kick outs. Lastly, and potentially most excitingly, I could also see him running the three at times. His ability to read a defense, throw accurate passes all over the court, and shoot when given any space could allow them to run some big sets, likely including Shedrick and Gardner. I specify both Shedrick and Gardner because, if they did this, I do think they’d have to get creative on defense. Speaking of…

Defense

This is easily going to be the biggest adjustment for BVP. First, let’s start off with what he does well.

Quick Hands

I’ve seen it written many places that BVP struggles with perimeter defense, but I don’t think that tells the full story. His footspeed isn’t his strength, but he’s got incredibly quick hands and he uses his size well. Against much quicker guards, he does have trouble, which we’ll see later, but here when guarding the 6’7″ Keion Brooks Jr., he reacts well to the threat of the drive, gives a buffer, and then uses his length and reaction speed to strip the ball on the way up. This ended up resulting in a bucket for Kentucky, but not through the fault of BVP, who made a nice defensive play.

This one’s not as much about the hands but I included it because it’s a nice example of him sticking with a much quicker player on a drive from the outside and then giving a good contest to alter the shot.

This is probably my favorite defensive play of his that I saw and demonstrates a few skills. As Brooks catches the ball in the corner, BVP closes out strongly without giving up his ability to react to the drive. On the drive, he’s very physical, subtly using his forearm to throw Brooks off balance. It’s not a foul if it’s not called, right? But this is the kind of thing both on drives and in the post that I consistently saw him utilize and get away with. To cap off the possession, he strips the ball and then hustles on the floor in attempt to save it from going out of bounds. Hopefully, this is the kind of energy he’ll be able to consistently tap into on the defensive end for us.

This is how he averaged 1.8 steals per game for the Bobcats last year. He’s crafty and aggressive when making plays on the ball on the defensive end. Here he times the double team perfectly and just cleanly takes the ball away.

This is obviously NOT how UVa defends ball screens. Much more on this to come, but here’s another great example of a player thinking they had enough space to take a shot and BVP stripping the ball out on the way up. It’s consistent and it’s conscious. Sometimes it even gets him into trouble, which I’ll get to in a bit.

Physicality

We saw some of this earlier on the Brooks drive, but BVP is a very physical player in a positive way on the defensive end, especially in the post.

Here he is against the 7’0″ Aziz Bandaogo not giving up much ground on the back down and then boxing out very fundamentally. Generally speaking, he held up very well when being posted playing strong and disruptively.

I included this one as well, both because it shows some perimeter mobility and defensive anticipation in the open court, but because it was also a smart play all around. You can tell Brooks thought he was going to try to hold his ground and take a charge as he lowers his shoulder and braces for contact but when BVP continues to back away and keep his hands active, it had a similar effect as pulling the chair out from under a post player.

There are some solid individual defensive techniques here on which to build, and there’s a savvy to his game that extends to this side of the ball. That being said, there are some team defensive concepts as well as some bad habits that he’s going to have to work on.

Pick and Roll Defense

I’m going to share quite a few examples here, because I think this is the single biggest place BVP is going to need to improve to thrive in CTB’s system. UVa hard-hedges most ball screens with the goal of the defender on the screener pushing the ball handler away from the hoop, and then recovering to his man (often with team help on the back side). This technique can be seen being executed by Jack Salt (#33) here:

This is how Ohio defends these types of screens:

Quite the opposite of the hard-hedge, BVP sags DEEP into the lane waiting for the ball handler while the primary defender attempts to recover to the ball handler, then, in turn, allowing BVP to recover to his man. Not only is it systematically very different, but it limits the team’s ability to help. Here, BVP just gets too deep helping to stop the drive and can’t recover in time to contest Brooks’s mid-range jumper.

This is the very next possession and Kentucky realized they found something here, getting Brooks another open mid-range jumper.

One more example from later in the game. Basically, exactly the same result. I wish I could say these were the only three examples, but Keion Brooks Jr. feasted this game mostly off of being the screener with BVP guarding him and then flaring into open space. Ohio had no answer. In fact, Brooks, who averaged just under 11 points per game on the season, led the way for the Wildcats with twice that – 22 points on the game.

In case you might be wondering if he had a bad game or if Brooks just happened to go off, this was something I consistently saw both in how Ohio defended the pick and roll but also in how much BVP struggled with it. Much more so, really, than his perimeter defense as there were many more opportunities for it to happen. Here’s an example against LSU:

The camera cuts to this play late but you can see the aftermath where BVP has collided with his own man and then is behind everyone on the play altogether. He doesn’t really hustle back and is also late to identify where his teammate’s man is after he switched to cover BVP’s initial man.

Here’s another one against Kent St. where he just kind of loses his man entirely while focusing on stopping the ball and his man catches the pass rolling to the hoop for the finish. BVP doesn’t actually do anything here. He sags too far back to bother the ball handler but he completely ignores his own man, forcing Carter on the back end to have to make a decision on which of two wide-open players to take. And really this was pretty common, where he’d find himself in no man’s land on pick plays for the ball handler. One of the biggest factors in how successful he’ll be for UVa this coming system will be how quickly he adapts to the hard-hedge and the help side defense required to defend these plays.

Struggles With Quickness

When you see most people discuss his struggles with perimeter defense, this is what they’re talking about:

There isn’t really much to belabor here. It’s not so much his technique or his ability to defend from the perimeter, it’s just strictly a matchup issue as there’s a level of quickness that he struggles to keep up with. But, really, unlike the pick and roll examples of which there were several more, these were some of the few highlights from these games where BVP got beat through pure quickness on the perimeter. And, primarily, it was because he was just rarely guarding these kinds of players as the primary ball defender (although it does speak to some of his hesitancy defending the pick and roll). It will, though, mean that he probably will not be able to guard a good number of 3s in ACC play. Does this limit him to the crowded 4 and 5 positions for UVa next year, despite the glaring need at 3? Maybe. But I would argue that with his offensive versatility and Jayden Gardner being an under-sized 4 with both strength and quickness, there’s potential for both to play hybrid roles where Gardner takes the 4 on offense and BVP defends the 4 on defense. Gardner’s main issue as a 4 is that he’s undersized. He relies on strength, quickness, energy and skill but lacks ideal size for the position, especially on defense.. If he could apply this toward physically defending some of the league’s Small Forwards while BVP tackled the post, it could be an effective solution. This could also allow Armaan Franklin to play increased minutes at the two, which I’ve argued in the past is valuable as his natural position.

Defensive Concentration

I want to talk about just one more thing about BVP’s defense as I was watching these games. Not infrequently, he would have some mental lapses or lack of urgency on the defensive side of the ball.

Here’s a baseline inbound play where he just kind of falls asleep on his man while watching the play develop and see where he can help. He isn’t screened or anything here, his man just notices the lack of attention and cuts to the ball.

We saw how effective he could be boxing out earlier when he was banging underneath with a 7’0″ player, but here he just watches the shot go up and turns, doesn’t put a body on his man at all, and loses out on the rebound.

On this one he just kind of spends this whole play spectating. When the shot goes up, he has plenty of time to contest the initial rebound, and certainly has time to get involved in the play, attempt to block the shot, fight for a rebound, etc. Instead, he stands stationary just outside of the lane and watches the whole thing unfold.

This actually reminds me of another play I highlighted on the championship team where Kihei Clark proactively left his man to switch to the primary ball handler, the rest of the team rotated perfectly, and Mamadi Diakite hustled back into the lane to grab the rebound. A similar thing happens here where the Ohio PG comes out to take the ball handler and relieve BVP of an isolation play. But BVP is slow to realize what’s happening and casual about identifying his recovery. The result is that he’s late to position and gives up the offensive rebound.

In general, it was little things like this, occasionally not hustling back down the court on defense (which could have been fatigue), ball watching, taking himself out of defensive position by trying to make a play stealing the ball; concentration lapses. Fortunately, this will be something he practices a ton at UVa, and I do think his not having to play 35+ minutes per game will help in this area. Some of these mistakes appeared to crop up most when he lost his legs or was tired. Give him a good 25 minutes across several positions and it’s more likely you’ll see the same player diving after loose balls. That being said, there are going to be so many schematic things to learn and bad habits to break on this side of the ball. CTB tends to trust experienced players, but we’ll see if this limits BVP’s early impact or not. Much like Jayden Gardner greatly improved as a defender toward the end of last year, I expect a similar trajectory from BVP this season.

In Conclusion

Ben Vander Plas should be an impact addition for UVa this season, likely as a 6th man with flexibility as to where he fills in off the bench. His experience should allow CTB to trust him as a plug-and-play much like we’ve seen with recent transfers. But it’s his offensive skillset that specifically fills the biggest void from last year’s team. It should CTB much flexibility across many lineups and options. Yes, simply backing up Jayden will be helpful, but consider how much better the small-ball lineup CTB often tried last year with Gardner at 5 and Stattmann at 4 would be with BVP in the Stattmann role. It’s easy to see how much of an improvement that would be. And, finally, the potential to get him some minutes at the 3, which is the biggest hole we currently have on the roster, is the thing that excites me the most.

He’s going to really need to work on his defense this offseason. There’s a lot to learn… but for a guy who already has two Master’s Degrees and was the Division I All-Academic Player of the Year last year, I imagine that’s a strength.

One response to “Tracking a Transfer: Ben Vander Plas”

  1. Great article, fascinating work. This is quickly becoming my favorite UVA basketball blog. Keep it up!

    The roster is shaping up to be very interesting. As you say, a lot of potential interesting lineups. That said, I wouldn’t say “creative lineup decisions” are a strength of CTB. At his core, I believe the man likes to set it and forget it. I wonder/worry about how the minutes are going to shake out this year (not even delving into the Kihei issue, which has been discussed elsewhere).

    Like

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