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Malcolm Brogdon and Virginia are recovering after painful years

Malcolm BrogdonMalcolm Brogdon has emerged as a leader on and off the court for the surprising Cavaliers. (Joe Robbins/Getty)

The rehabilitation of Malcolm Brogdon’s broken foot last season played out, naturally, step by step before his Virginia teammates. They could recite each painstaking measure of progress because whatever they saw Brogdon do was at the threshold of what he had clearance to do. When he was still on crutches, he used a device to roll his injured foot around while form shooting and dribbling. When he could run, he was on the court racing up and down, coming off curls, getting shots up.

“Every day, you knew what he was allowed to do,” Virginia center Mike Tobey said, “because he was doing it.”

If Brogdon’s year off coincided with a somewhat off year for Virginia, both emerged this season as reshaped products in a run toward the top of the ACC. The renewed Cavaliers have won eight of nine league games, including five straight, while eyeing a favorable path to challenging for a league title. And Brogdon has had few missteps since the new year, rediscovering timing and confidence while implementing tools he refined during his season of recovery.

Now a redshirt sophomore, Brogdon is Virginia’s leading scorer at 11.8 points per game. But his number is 15.2 points a night in ACC play, including a career-best streak of nine double-figure scoring games going into a contest with Boston College on Wednesday. He’s embodying the “completeness” coach Tony Bennett observed in a lanky Atlanta recruit at the Peach Jam Invitational a years back: The 6-foot-5 Brogdon is both second in the ACC in field-goal percentage (51.1 percent) and steals (1.89 per game). An NIT team a year ago, Virginia surged back from relative obscurity in large part because Brogdon has, too.

“He’s really efficient,” said Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon, one day after Brogdon hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat the Panthers on Sunday. “His numbers are exceptional. He’s a really good shooter with deep range, he’s got good size, and he’s a good defender at the same time. You don’t often see a guy who’s a good shooter and a good defender.”

When Brogdon returned to the court on Nov. 8 in Virginia’s season opener, it was his first live game action since Feb. 25, 2012. This would explain the unease that Brogdon felt until a couple months later, when the Cavaliers commenced ACC play against Florida State on Jan. 4 and a comfort coursed through him during a 38-minute stint that produced 11 points and six rebounds.

It also helps explain why Virginia has been on this run since. “I felt like I was totally back, in terms of my confidence, in terms of everything with my game – my shot, my ball-handling, my decision-making, my defense, how my body moved,” Brogdon said of that league opener. “I felt like I was actually beyond where I left off.

“There were a lot of things that factor into that. Emotionally, it’s a big barrier to get over when you’re injured and you have to fight through that injury. Some of that pain is necessary and you have to fight through it. Even though your mind is telling you you can’t, sometimes you have to push through it. That was a big thing I had to get over.”

Of course Brogdon’s mood bottomed out a bit following the surgery, when he was idled or alone and teammates worked at full-speed, or when pain shot through his foot as he very simply put on a shoe. That agony, he said, was “sometimes excruciating and super frustrating,” but he set course for something bigger. He was determined to see himself differently.

So Brogdon consumed film of his freshman season at Virginia at a rate he’d never even considered before. He figured his NBA heroes digested video regularly and he ought to as well. He sought out areas of improvement – his pace of play, his shot mechanics – and that altered his perspective on what a year away from the game could mean.

“That was constant through the year,” Brogdon said. “I never stopped watching film.”

Does he believe he would have done so without a bad break?

“No, I do not,” Brogdon said, flatly. “I think that’s one of the positives, one of the things that being injured showed me I needed to do.”

He discovered that if he was more deliberate with his movements and actions on the court, he could be more effective. He also endeavored to add more arc to his shot. That meant he needed to work on a different release point. And that meant he needed to catch the ball differently. It was no overhaul, but it might not have happened if he was at full health.

“It really paid off to sit out and watch and sort of learn the game and sharpen up a few areas, and really just work on my craft,” Brogdon said.

Less meticulously planned was an emerging role as a leader, even as a sophomore. Tobey recalled Brogdon pulling teammates aside to offer counsel during and after games, but he also noted how teammates approached Brogdon, recognizing how engaged he was and coming in search of advice or pointers.

"You’re so eager to play, but you have to sit there and kind of mature: This isn’t my time. but can I help in other ways?” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “There’s definitely a maturity level you get from sitting out and watching and growing.”

The growth is now exponential. Virginia sat at No. 24 in the preseason AP poll but plunged out due to uneven non-conference results and only this week returned at No. 20. An 87-52 loss to Tennessee on Dec. 30 was the Cavaliers’ most thorough failure but enabled Bennett to redirect his team’s attention to detailed and high-effort play on both ends of the floor. Virginia currently ranks as the nation’s No. 2 team in adjusted defensive efficiency, allowing just 87 points per 100 possessions, while its 66.1 points per game represent the best rate of Bennett’s tenure.

Everything settled into place just as Brogdon’s recovery did as the ACC began, and the results have been nearly painless, with only a tight road loss to Duke besmirching the Cavaliers’ league record. “Even when you don’t play basketball for two days, you’re a little bit rusty with your shot, so I can’t imagine not playing in a game for a year and a half,” Tobey said of Brogdon. “There were definitely some things he had to work out. As a whole team, we’re definitely coming together in ACC play. We’re all figuring it out right now.”

Nothing exemplified that more than the last thing Brogdon and Virginia did on the basketball court, last Sunday in Pittsburgh.

Throughout the season, the Cavaliers worked on a specific set play for end-of-clock, end-of-game situations that Bennett borrowed from a packet of plays Stan Van Gundy once handed him at a clinic. Joe Harris, the team’s second-leading scorer, rolls to the top of the key from the corner, curling off a double screen as a decoy. Brogdon followed in the exact same path as the intended shooter. Virginia always rehearsed this at the end of workouts, and though the operation was tidy, the result almost never was.

“I’m not sure I’ve made that shot one time in practice,” Brodgon said. “It’s the last thing we do. At that point, I’m a little bit stiff, we’re losing our intensity, a little bit of focus. And just really trying to get the play down and not focusing on the shot as much. So usually none of us really hit those shots.”

Players weren’t sure Bennett ever would call the play in a game. In the din of the Petersen Events Center on Sunday, he did. And Harris served as the decoy, and Brogdon followed, completely abandoned by Pittsburgh defenders for a moment. He received the pass, let fly an NBA-range three-pointer and held his follow through as he backpedaled down the court. The shot connected with 0.1 seconds left in what became a 48-45 win, and Virginia mobbed Brogdon, who wore a wide smile as he held his arms in the air. Everything just as planned, everything falling into place just in time.

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