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Leon Bond III emulates Tony Bennett in more ways than one

In his first season of potential starting action, the versatile redshirt freshman adds athleticism and personality to the young Cavaliers

<p>Leon Bond's experience from his redshirt season should pay dividends for the Cavaliers.</p>

Leon Bond's experience from his redshirt season should pay dividends for the Cavaliers.

When redshirt freshman forward Leon Bond III committed to Virginia, the Wauwatosa, Wis. native immediately recognized the community Coach Tony Bennett had built. The highly regarded recruit had multiple offers on the table — including Marquette, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech — but he knew that Virginia would be his destination. 

“I just felt at home here from my visit,” Bond said. “It just felt like family, the group of coaches was gonna build the player and person I want to be in life.” 

Virginia will certainly look very different offensively this season, with several notable departures replaced with an array of promising additions. Because Bond redshirted last season and accrued a year of practice time, he will likely headline the new contributors due to his experience. 

“I’m just like a do-it-all type of guy. Wherever I am needed, I’m there for my teammates,” Bond said. “I can play the three [small forward] and knock down shots or play the four [power forward] and play in the post, I’ll create open looks for my guys and do it all.”

No longer a recruit, but a vital piece on arguably the most talented Virginia roster since 2019, Bond forms a formidable trio of Wisconsin-born stars with senior guard Reece Beekman and sophomore guard Andrew Rohde. Of course, Bennett himself also hails from the Dairy State. 

“It feels really good, being a Wisconsin guy with [Bennett] being from Wisconsin and the midwest grit we all got,” Bond said. “We work hard. Midwest hoopers know how to play, we get at it.”

Bond performed admirably in his senior season at Wauwatosa East High School, to the tune of 21.1 points per game — and a state title. Despite never playing a minute of college basketball so far, Bennett is high on Bond’s potential to come in and produce immediately.

“Regarding Leon, his improvement, the trajectory that he’s on, is good,” Bennett said. “I think the good thing about Leon is he knows us … He’s just going to get better and better.” 

Bond also excels off the court, serving as the unofficial ambassador of the Virginia culture to a Virginia squad with so many new pieces and always has something good to say about his teammates. One he looks forward to playing with in particular is Rohde, a fellow Wisconsinite.

“Andrew Rohde will do some things. He is expected to score, sure, but he can truly change the game,” Bond said. “He will turn heads. He looks for teammates, he can take over games. You would be surprised.”

Three-point shooting was a top priority for Bennett’s offseason shopping list, and he added a few intriguing options in addition to Rohde. Bond mentioned transfer graduate student forward Jake Groves — a three-point specialist from Oklahoma — as not just an elite shooter but also a fun teammate. Bennett is known for bringing the team on extracurricular adventures such as whitewater rafting, and Bond has found that Groves has been one of the more enthusiastic new teammates.

“[If I had to pick one teammate to survive on an abandoned island] I am taking Jake Groves. We’re fishing, making fire, camping, we know how to do it being some backwoods boys,” Bond said.

Building camaraderie goes beyond the basketball court, and Bond is a key leader in building team chemistry. The squad can frequently be found attending Virginia soccer games, or other sporting events. Bond’s energetic personality is contagious and impactful. 

“I’m just joyful, I see the positive in everything,” Bond said. “I want to compete and wanna win, I encourage our guys and find joy even in losses, I just wanna go at it.” 

Bond and company will have every opportunity to succeed without the stress of extreme expectations, as Virginia is currently unranked to start the season for the first time since 2018 and projected to finish fourth in the ACC. The last time the team was not in the opening preseason poll, it went on to go 31-3 and earn the nation’s top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Like the 2018 team, the new Cavaliers boast a crew of highly regarded talents. Bond himself was the 60th-best recruit in the entire 2022 high school class. 

“We’re really raw, which is good,” Bond said. “We are young, and we have limitless potential. Our highs are so high, when we get it together we are gonna be scary.” 

Virginia’s 2022 recruiting class featured two current mainstays in sophomore guard Isaac McKneely and sophomore forward Ryan Dunn — McKneely the sharpshooter, with Dunn the high-flying dunker and Bond the versatile scorer. Like Dunn, Bond can throw down the hammer on fastbreaks in his own right. 

“I gotta give [the title of best dunker] to Ryan right now,” Bond said. “He’s pulled off those athletic dunks where it's just like wow. If he is the best though, I am a close second.”

Bond obviously embodies humility, one of Bennett’s core five pillars, and lives to that standard on and off the court. He aims to one day work with Nike in community outreach or as a brand ambassador — but for now, championships are at the forefront. Repeating as regular season winners of the ACC would be a good start. The Cavaliers won a share of the regular season title with Miami. Through it all, Bond centers himself on his love of basketball.

“I just kinda fell in love with the game,” Bond said. “I get into a zone where it's like nothing else matters, and it feels amazing.”

Bond’s passion is a significant boost to the entire team, and he is just getting started. Figuring out Virginia’s starting lineup is going to be a bit of a mystery with all the new playmakers — but Bennett made sure to highlight the young forward in media availability. 

“[Bond] looked really good in that blue-white scrimmage, that was good stuff, and he's just fun to watch,” Bennett said. “There's a smoothness to how he moves and slashes and does things.”

With several guards and larger forwards, Bond could be the optimal option at the natural small forward position in between his fellow 2022 recruits in Dunn and McKneely. Regardless of how the rotation is shaped, Bond figures to be a crucial component of a thrilling new era of Virginia men’s basketball.

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