2019 NBA Draft

Instincts, 'it factor' see Ty Jerome to first-round potential

A few years back, Virginia basketball coach Tony Bennett was watching a player at a camp in Pennsylvania when his attention got diverted.

“All of a sudden, I saw this skinny kid who wasn’t super athletic, but there was just something about him,” Bennett says. “I came back and told my staff about him because I really liked him. But I didn’t follow up on it.”

Flash forward a couple months, and Bennett is in Atlanta to see a certain player when that skinny kid showed up again. Bennett’s memory of the camp in Pennsylvania was quickly jogged, and he locked in on Ty Jerome.

At that moment, Bennett took a key step toward winning the 2019 NCAA championship.

“I didn’t know Ty’s team was going to be there,” Bennett says. “But I’m watching him, and I said to myself, ‘Wait a second. This is that guy I watched in Pennsylvania.’ He was the best player on the floor. He managed the game. He made great plays.”

Thinking Jerome might be too good to be true, Bennett paid extra attention to the gangly 6-foot-5 point guard, making sure he could defend elite athleticism. Eventually convinced Jerome could, Bennett offered a scholarship. Soon after, several more power conference schools tried to become involved with Jerome, but it was too late. Bennett and his new point guard had already formed a special bond because, as the sons of basketball coaches, they were part of an exclusive club.

Bennett’s father is the legendary Dick Bennett, who won titles coaching in college, including at the University of Wisconsin and later at Washington State. Tony Bennett played for his father at Green Bay before going onto an NBA career (Charlotte Hornets) that was cut short by a foot injury. The younger Bennett eventually followed his dad into coaching, first at Washington State and for the last decade at Virginia, where his teams have dominated the rugged Atlantic Coast Conference, winning four of the last six regular-season championships.

Jerome’s father Mark was raised in Harlem and learned the game on asphalt, playing pickup games and street tournaments against unrelenting opponents, trash talking and heckling from fans. Mark Jerome thought that was the perfect environment to teach his son the game.

Ty Jerome could have had no better college coach than Tony Bennett.

“We talked about that a lot,” Bennett says. “There’s something built in when you play for your father. The one thing you know is that this is my dad. I know he loves me, and I know I can trust him. Even though at the time you might not feel like it. Sometimes, it gets emotional, and things become exaggerated.”

Jerome, forecast by many to be a first-round pick in this week’s NBA Draft, knows that all too well.

“Playing for my dad was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do,” Jerome says. “That made me extremely mentally tough. When you play in New York City, if you’re not ready to play or you’re not mentally tough, you get exposed. It just builds a level of toughness you have to have to play out there.”

When he was younger, Jerome didn’t appreciate his father’s tough love approach as much as he would later.

“We went for extended periods of time without talking—sometimes two or three months,” Jerome says. “My parents had split up, and after games, I went right to my mom. I didn’t understand the bigger picture at six or seven years old.”

Jerome didn’t have a choice but to play basketball. His father was a high school coach, so Jerome’s second home was the gym. Father and son watched countless hours of live games or film. Mark Jerome even took his son to the same playgrounds where he had learned the game, the hard way. Was it excessive? Did Mark Jerome risk burning out his son at an early age? As it turned out, he knew exactly what he was doing.

So did Tony Bennett, the second he laid eyes on Ty Jerome.

Jerome endured his highs and lows during his freshman season at Virginia, but Bennett remembers him coming into his own in games against Notre Dame and then-No. 1-ranked Villanova. “We all thought we had something, if Ty just continued to develop,” Bennett says.

Jerome did. And along with De’Andre Hunter (a certain lottery pick) and Kyle Guy — both of whom were recruited in Jerome’s class — they helped the Cavaliers own the ACC the last two seasons. In 2017-18, Virginia finished 31-3, and an astounding 17-1 in a league with Duke, North Carolina, Louisville, Syracuse and NC State. In 2018-19, the Cavs were 16-2 in the ACC and 35-3 overall, capping an incredible season—and one of the great comebacks in history—by beating Texas Tech in an epic national championship game.

But it’s what happened in between those two seasons that defines Virginia basketball, its extraordinary coach, its resilient players, and perhaps Jerome in particular. In the 2018 NCAA tournament, the Cavaliers made history by becoming the first No. 1 seed to be ousted by a No. 16 seed. That stunning loss to UMBC evoked criticism and questions about whether Bennett’s deliberate pace and pack line defense, so effective in the crucible of the ACC season, was ripe for such upsets in postseason play, where every opponent, with nothing to lose and everything to gain, can fire away with abandon from 3-point range and hope for the best.

After the UMBC debacle, Bennett and his players pretended the outside world didn’t exist.

“We started the next day,” Jerome says. “It was awesome the way everyone responded [to the loss]. We all grew closer. We knew what our goal was, and we weren’t afraid to say it. We wanted to win the national championship. We knew how hard that would be, but our coaching staff did a great job of preparing us for what it was going to take, every single day.”

Virginia’s run through the tournament has become the stuff of legend. There were heroes aplenty—Guy was chosen Final Four Most Outstanding Player and Hunter scored 27 points in the title game, including a critical 3 to send it to overtime. But Jerome was always there, running the show, making key plays, pretty much playing the way he did when Bennett discovered him. In two Final Four games, Jerome averaged 18.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists.

“You hear this saying a lot, but it’s as true of Ty as anybody,” Bennett says. “He has the ‘it’ factor. He’s got the ability to do things. He’s fearless and he’s so competitive. He’s got a mind for the game that’s as good as it gets.”

Jerome has been hard at work since declaring for the Draft. “Always shooting and ball handling,” he says. “I want to be a great shooter [he was a career 39 percent 3-point shooter at Virginia]. Not a good shooter. A great shooter.”

Jerome has also added mid-range floaters to his arsenal and has worked on playing through contact. His instincts to make plays for others are already ingrained. Jerome’s goal is to be able to contribute right away, just like he did at Virginia.

“I want to get into the right fit,” Jerome says. “I’d love to go to a good culture and hopefully a winning culture, learn from veterans and have the opportunity to contribute to win.”

Bennett has no doubt Jerome will be successful in the NBA.

“He’s such a winner,” Bennett says. “I’d never bet against Ty; not a chance. He’s so smart, he always figures ways out. Wherever he goes, he’s going to figure out a way to contribute.”

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Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

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