While Virginia Tech has struggled during the latter half of ACC play, there have still been plenty of positives for the Hokies including the emergence of Jalen Cone.
Cone was recruited as a point guard largely because of his size, but also partially due to his size at under 6 feet. Despite that, most saw Cone as a scoring first type point guard with the offensive skills to make a difference early in his career at Virginia Tech.
Of course, the fact that Cone was recruited as a point guard brought about the natural expectation of what we think of in a point guard as an on-ball offensive initiator. While Cone has the potential to develop into that type of player, the strengths that he has showed in his game suggest that his best future may be in a slightly different role than expected.
With the Hokies having some offensive struggles in early January, Virginia Tech started to pair Wabissa Bede and Jalen Cone together on the floor with Bede running the point and Cone working off the ball. Bringing Cone on in that role proved to be a much-needed spark that could lay the foundation for Cone's long-term role.
The first notable instance came at Syracuse, as Jalen Cone thrived taking the game in the second half with 19 points on 5-7 shooting from three-point range overall to lead the Hokies to a comeback victory in the Carrier Dome. Cone's strong second half was not only the first significant time that Cone worked in his off-the-ball two guard role, but also proved to be a coming out party for him.
After being relatively quiet during the 14 games, Cone has taken off the past 14 games (including his breakout game against Syracuse) averaging 10.3 points per game while shooting 49.3% (36-73) from three-point range during that timeframe. More impressive, all 14 of those games have come against ACC competition with Cone scoring double figures seven times including a career high 20 points in the triple overtime loss to Miami.
More importantly may be the value that Cone has brought to the table on the offensive end of the floor especially in his current role.
Cone is currently second on the team in offensive plus-minus per 100 minutes according to Sports-Reference while also being tied for second with Nahiem Alleyne in Offensive Win Shares despite being seventh in total minutes. Cone is also second in offensive rating according to Sports-Reference, showing how the Hokies' offense is better as a whole with Cone on the floor in his role working off the ball.
During ACC play, Cone ranks second overall in not only offensive win shares and offensive rating, but also in total win shares with his size clearly not holding him back from being a net positive player for the Hokies.
The advanced stats do show that Cone has had some struggles on the defensive end with his -2.4 defensive plus-minus being the worst among the Hokies' regular players. However, Cone is one of three regular contributors for Tech to have a net positive for the Hokies when combining his offensive and defensive ratings both overall and within ACC play with the other two being Tyrece Radford and John Ojiako.
Now some may still believe that Jalen Cone needs to eventually shift into a traditional point guard role due to his size, but there have been plenty of undersized guards who have worked off-the-ball like Cone and not only personally thrived but also have seen their teams thrive.
One of the best examples of this is a name quite familiar to Hokie fans, Seth Allen.
The former Maryland transfer and Virginia Tech star initially ran the show for the Hokies during the 2015-16 season on Tech's way to the NIT. However, as the season went along, the Hokies started to use then-freshman Justin Robinson at the point with Allen working more off-the-ball at the two despite being undersized for the position.
Allen was fully shifted to that rule for the 2016-17 season with Allen doing extremely well in that spot averaging 13.3 points per game while shooting 53% from the field and 44% from three-point range, vast improvements from the previous season when he had to spend lots of time on the ball.
More importantly, Allen led the Hokies in offensive plus-minus per 100 minutes among regular contributors while also having his offensive and defensive rating being a net positive per Sports-Reference.
With Allen working off the ball, Virginia Tech made their first of three-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, launching the real beginning of what has been a golden era for Virginia Tech basketball.
Now there are a couple differences between Cone and Allen as Cone hasn't been as good as Allen on the defensive end with a negative defensive win shares compared to Allen having a rating that is just barely positive. However, Cone's defensive play in ACC play has been better than Allen's with Cone having a defensive rating of 106.2 while Allen's was 118.2. However, it is important to note that Cone is currently rated as Tech's weakest defensive player by that stat.
There have also been other vastly undersized two guards who have thrived and led their teams to great success including former Louisville star Russ Smith.
Smith was definitely undersized at right around 6 feet but despite that, he and point guard Peyton Siva thrived together with Smith leading Louisville in scoring in his final 2 seasons including during the 2012-13 season where the Cardinals won the national title (that has since been vacated). Smith was a better defensive player than Allen was or Cone has been this season according to the metrics, but his offensive prowess proved to be worth sacrificing the size at the two guard for a national champion winning team.
Jalen Cone still could develop into a really good, traditional point guard and offensive initiator on the ball. However, Cone has showed an offensive prowess and potential like Seth Allen and Russ Smith did to overcome any defensive deficiencies that his size could cause and lead a team to not only an NCAA Tournament but also competing with the best teams in the sport on the biggest stages.