MINNEAPOLIS — Ty Jerome was never supposed to be considered a potential first-round pick in the NBA Draft. Ultimately, he may not be one, and seeing as how he’s only a junior, there’s no guarantee he makes he jump in 2019. But as he showed during the Virginia Cavaliers’ Final Four victory over the Auburn Tigers on Saturday night, Jerome has what it takes to play at the next level for a long, long time.
Virginia’s victory will be remembered for its ending, one that included an uncalled double-dribble on Jerome himself in the game’s waning moments. In the 39 minutes prior to the frenetic final 60 seconds, though, the 21 year old was the best player on the floor for either squad. While teammate Kyle Guy was cool, calm, and collected from the free throw line to clinch the victory, Jerome delivered to the tune of 21 points, nine rebounds, and six assists, carrying the Virginia offense in the first half while the rest of the squad sputtered.
Jerome was a consensus top-50 recruit as a high school senior from New Rochelle, N.Y., but due to his lack of off-the-charts physical tools, his future in the NBA is a bit murky. In fact, Virginia head coach Tony Bennett took note of Jerome early in high school career and, even after all he has seen from the youngster, Bennett couldn’t help but recall one significant limitation upon an initial viewing.
“I saw him when he was younger,” Bennett said of Jerome during pre-game availability in Minneapolis. “It was in Pennsylvania. And I was watching someone else, and he was playing in that game, and he wasn’t near as big and all that, and I just kept saying, ‘Man, he’s really good.’ But in my mind, I’m like, ‘No, no, he’s not moving that well. I don’t know. But, man, he’s really good.'”
Bennett went on to admit that, despite that positive first impression, he didn’t necessarily think he had to go all-in on getting Jerome to Charlottesville.
“I kind of forgot about Ty,” Bennett said. “My staff should have kept tabs … just kidding. But I forgot about him. That summer I go to watch another player. It just so happens Ty was playing that team. I didn’t go to watch Ty, and he played like Ty played, and I told my staff, ‘I’m locking in on that young man. There’s something there. I think he’s got a chance.’ And I bull-dogged him and followed him, and he kept making a believer out of me more and more.
“I followed him to Kansas City, I think I was one of the only head coaches there,” Bennett continued. “I knew it. When you see it, you know it, and I knew it. He overcame … he’s gotten quicker and all that. Not many were taking the chance on him.”
Fast-forward 104 career games over three seasons and some of the same concerns about his game still exist. The 6’5, 195-pound junior isn’t a great athlete and, despite Bennett’s correct assertion that he has improved his tools, Jerome will never stand out for what he can do athletically. What he lacks in explosiveness can be made up with craft and polish, though, and as everyone saw on Saturday, there aren’t many players in America as polished as Jerome.
First and foremost, Jerome is a high-level shooter. Following a 4-for-9 performance from beyond the arc in the national semifinal, Jerome sits with a career three-point mark of 39.2 percent. That number jumped to 40.1 percent during his junior season. Jerome isn’t Steph Curry, but he can create his own shot by generating separation and differentiates himself among his peers by demonstrating an acute understand of how to navigate screens set by teammates.
Jerome also brings impressive size as a lead guard, which he pairs with strong secondary ball-handling ability. It would be fair to note that he doesn’t profile as an every-play creator in the NBA and, because of that, team fit will be of great importance. Still, Jerome can hold up as a facilitator, which is evidenced by his season-long average of 5.4 assists per game in Virginia’s glacially paced system.
Defensively, there are legitimate concerns about Jerome which, once again, stem from his athleticism. No one would classify him as a defensive stopper, but what Jerome does boast is a near-perfect understand of positioning, which helps to mask his perceived deficiencies and provides reason to believe that he can hold up as a team defender in the NBA. For good measure, Jerome has regularly displayed quick hands that aid in generating steals and, while that may be a supporting piece of his defensive profile, it is a useful one.
It’s always wise to keep one-game samples in context and, make no mistake, Jerome repeatedly proved his value to a top-seeded Virginia team well before they arrived at the Final Four. With that said, it was no coincidence that Auburn’s torrid 14-0 run in the closing minutes came largely with Jerome on the bench.
Jerome, who was enjoying one of the best games of his career, inexplicably committed a pair of unforced fouls in a 31-second span, with the latter serving as his fourth personal. That prompted Bennett so send him to the bench and, even if that decision was met with skepticism in the moment, the results were damning for the squad. When Jerome exited, Virginia led by a virtually insurmountable (at least at the game’s pace) nine-point margin. When he returned, that advantage was cut to a single point.
From there, you know the story. Bennett plainly stated after the game that Virginia “needed (Jerome) on the floor” and provided a wry smile when announcing that he exclaimed “why’d you do that?!” to his team’s lead guard following his fourth foul.
Jerome may not never be as valuable to an NBA team as he as to the Hoos, but he certainly shouldn’t be ignored in conversations about the next level, and it is time to acknowledge that he is more than simply a fantastic college player serving as a key cog for a team that is 40 minutes away from being crowned national champions.