CHARLOTTE — London Perrantes and Isaiah Wilkins were ready for a day of questions about the Virginia basketball team — just maybe not as early as everyone would’ve liked. The Cavaliers’ player representatives at ACC media day at the Ritz-Carlton had to hurry to make their availability because Wilkins mistakenly set his phone alarm for Thursday, not Wednesday. Once there, the most popular topic they faced was how different this year’s team is after losing last year’s star seniors, Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Mike Tobey. The short answer, according to Perrantes and Wilkins: Very different.
Here are a few takeaways from Perrantes’s and Wilkins’s time with the media:
Perrantes has evolved. A little more than three years ago, Perrantes moved across the country from Los Angeles to Charlottesville as a pass-first point guard with exceptional game instincts and a team of dependable upperclassmen surrounding him. Now, Perrantes is the last remaining member of Virginia’s old guard, the group of players with whom Coach Tony Bennett built a nationally respected program. As the only senior with significant experience on this year’s roster — and one of three returning starters, along with juniors Wilkins and guard Devon Hall — Perrantes has become a more vocal leader out of necessity.
“He’s our coach on the floor, we trust him,” Wilkins said. “There will be times where we’ll come into a huddle and London will sit in Coach Bennett’s chair and four guys will huddle around him and he’ll speak to us, and then Coach Bennett will come in and say the same things. So he knows the program like the back of his hand. He’s the quarterback of our team and we trust him.”
Expect Perrantes to increase his scoring this year, as well, in an effort to make up for what the team lost in Brogdon and Gill. He’s been working on being a more aggressive shooter all over the floor after relying on his perimeter shot last season, when he led the ACC by making 48.8 percent of his three-pointers. Perrantes has also been working in practice to get his younger teammates to adopt a more aggressive shooting mentality.
“One person’s not gonna fill the void of Mike, AG and Malcolm,” Perrantes said. “So just being able to have everybody step up in that aspect is gonna be huge for us.”
There’s a lot more teaching in practice than in previous years. Wilkins estimates Virginia has always spent about three-fourths of every practice working on defense. But with five new players and two who redshirted last year joining the mix, Bennett has had to slow things down and focus on basics a bit more in practice than he has in previous years, particularly when teaching the pack-line defense.
“They’re definitely getting it, they’re moving fast, they’re pretty smart,” Perrantes said of his new teammates. “You have to be smart to be able to do this as well as strong, and quick and things like that. They’re definitely getting it — it’s taking some time, but we still have a little bit more time left.”
While Bennett teaches, he’s also evaluating players in practice in hopes of having some idea of a rotation come preseason. Of the new players, Austin Nichols is certainly expected to have a significant role, but Perrantes said this year is the first in memory in which Bennett might have some difficult decisions to make when it comes time to name starters.
“This is the first time I feel like all 13 guys on the roster could really contribute,” Perrantes said. ” . . . I’m glad I’m not the coach.”
Virginia isn’t shying away from issues of social justice. The day before the start of fall practice, Virginia posted a team photo in which they posed kneeling with their arms linked in unity as a message against social injustice. The photo stemmed from national anthem protests that 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began over the summer, although the Cavaliers have been insistent that their photo is not meant to protest the police or the military.
On Wednesday, Perrantes and Wilkins showed they have no problem continuing the conversation about their role as activists and, at least for now, aren’t treating speaking out against social injustice as a distraction from the season.
Perrantes said he bought a Kaepernick jersey after the team took the photo once he learned the quarterback was donating his jersey proceeds to charity.
“Everybody has their opinions, he’s doing what he’s able to do,” Perrantes said of Kaepernick’s protest. “I got a crazy comment saying to just shut up and play basketball — that’s one thing that he’s doing, he’s not just a football player, we’re not just basketball players, we’re able to speak our mind. For him to do that at the highest level and put his neck out there — he may lose sponsorships — it was nothing to us to be able to do something like that. We don’t have sponsorships, we’re not gonna lose our scholarships, we just wanted to be able to support him.”
Wilkins spoke a little bit more about Virginia’s team meeting with the Charlottesville chief of police. He said it was a chance for players to ask questions, including how to act if they are in a situation in which the police are involved, and both sides spoke freely regarding the police interactions with minority communities.