GAINESVILLE, Fla. — A few weeks into the offseason, the Florida basketball program has seen one expected roster domino fall as well as another perhaps less expected one.
All the while, the Gators’ 2017-18 picture is coming into clearer focus.
Forward Devin Robinson announced last week he will forgo his senior season to enter the NBA draft, while guard Eric Hester surprised many (including his high school coach) by deciding to transfer out of the program after his freshman season. Coach Mike White also had previously indicated he did not expect center John Egbunu, who is recovering from a torn left ACL, to return for his senior season.
So where does all of that leave the Gators as they look to build on their recently-completed run to the Elite Eight?
Let’s take a look.
With Kasey Hill moving on, Chris Chiozza becomes the full-time starting point guard in his senior year. He finished with averages of 7.2 points and 3.8 assists per game this past season while posting a better assist-to-turnover ratio (2.4/1) than Hill (1.5/1).
He shot just 31.3 percent from 3-point range, including making the biggest shot of Florida’s season, but there should be enough offensive options around him to allow Chiozza to pick his spots while focusing on being an efficient distributor.
Most prominent among those options would be guard KeVaughn Allen, who led the Gators in scoring at 14 points per game as a sophomore. And yet, it seems clear that he has another level to reach, in terms of being consistently aggressive and impactful offensively.
Allen had 8 20-point games and showed his peak abilities with a career-high 35 points in Florida’s Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin, but he also disappeared for extended stretches in other games.
White already has spoken to both guards about his expectations for them next season.
“KeVaughn in his first 2 years … we’ve been able to get away with every 4 or 5 games him having a subpar game, and he’s going to shoulder a lot more burden (now),” White said. “As I told him, he shouldn’t feel pressure from that; he should feel excitement from that. That’s what he wants. That’s what I would hope he wants. I want him to embrace the fact we need him to play well every night.
“Same with Chris Chiozza. Chris Chiozza cannot be a guy that plays like a starter 2 games in a row, and then plays like, oh my goodness thank God Kasey [Hill] played really well because it wasn’t Chris’ best game. We need to add depth and we need to develop our depth, but those guys are going to have big expectations on that — offensively, defensively, from a leadership standpoint, communication standpoint, from a leading-by-example standpoint.”
Plenty to prove in the frontcourt
Assuming Egbunu indeed does not return, the Gators have a frontcourt with intriguing pieces but not a lot of proven production.
Kevarrius Hayes will return to the starting center role as a junior after averaging 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game this past season. He had some nice moments (including 20 points and 9 rebounds against Oklahoma), but Florida will need even more from him in 2017-18.
That goes for the rest of the team’s forwards and interior players, to an even greater degree.
White said in his season wrap-up press conference that 6-foot-11 center Gorjok Gak “is just scratching the surface” heading into his sophomore season. Brought along slowly as a freshman and then sidelined for a stretch by a sprained left foot, Gak emerged to play some valuable minutes in the postseason. He’ll need to become a much bigger rotational piece behind Hayes.
As it relates to players taking second-year leaps, though, White has really put the onus on 6-foot-8 forward Keith Stone to become a more consistent factor as a redshirt sophomore.
Stone was derailed by a viral infection over the second half of the season, but he showed enough in spots (17 points vs. Georgia, 15 vs. Miami, 14 vs. Alabama) to tease the potential for a bigger impact in 2017-18.
He’s a versatile player like Robinson who can contribute from the perimeter or play bigger if the matchup demands.
“The same conversation about Cheese [Chiozza] and KeVaughn [applies] even to a further extent in that Keith Stone is going to be depended upon at a much higher level than he was this year. Much higher,” White said. “And that’s what he should he want with the departure of [Justin] Leon and [Canyon] Barry and [Robinson]. Keith Stone’s got to make a big jump this offseason. I’m glad we saw glimpses of it. I wish we had seen even more glimpses of it because we’re going to need to see a bunch of glimpses next season.”
Potential impactful newcomers
So with Chiozza, Allen, Stone and Hayes, that’s 4 spots that seem pretty clearly defined. Where does the rest of the rotation come from?
The Gators have a number of highly intriguing newcomers to add next season.
Jalen Hudson sat out this season as a transfer from Virginia Tech, where he had started 24 games as a sophomore. The 6-foot-6 guard averaged 8.4 points and shot 34.6 percent from 3-point range (28-of-81) during the 2015-16 season.
Hudson has the opportunity to establish a significant role if he can prove himself defensively. White doesn’t have much patience for lapses on that end of the floor, and like with the others, he’s made his expectations clear to Hudson.
“He needs to have a really big impact. He will offensively per minute, I can promise you that. The guy’s as talented an offensive player as we have along with KeVaughn Allen. He’s that talented offensively,” White said. “My challenge to Jalen is to defend and rebound at a higher level. … I’m going to play guys based on how they defend and how they rebound. And if he earns minutes, I know he’ll score. I know he’ll have some big games for us offensively per minute, depending upon how many minutes that he earns.”
The real wild card for next season, meanwhile, is incoming freshman DeAundrae Ballard, a 6-foot-6 guard from Atlanta who is rated a 4-star recruit by the 247Sports composite rankings.
White turned some heads recently in sharing the player comparison he sees when looking at Ballard.
“(He) is a 6-6 athlete, high-motor guy, can score it, can defend, got some toughness to him, pretty versatile,” White said. “I’m going to throw a name at you, I shouldn’t do it, but I can’t help myself. He reminds me of this guy because of his intangibles, because of his motor and because of his frame and dimensions, in terms of what he could be. He’s so far away from this guy, of course, [but] you can see a little bit of Sindarius Thornwell in him. Some Thornwell in that he can drive it, he can shoot it, he can pass it, he can defend, he can do a lot of things pretty well, doesn’t hang his hat on 1 thing. Good player. Really excited about DeAundrae.”
Comparing him to South Carolina’s reigning SEC Player of the Year should make Florida fans really excited about Ballard, too.
If he can make an immediate impact next season, between he and Hudson, it’s easy to project the Gators offsetting the offensive production lost from their Elite Eight roster.
As for the rest of the rotation, they’ll need other young players to develop.
Dontay Bassett, a 6-foot-9 forward, should be ready to compete for minutes after missing his first season with a stress fracture in his right foot.
Michael Okauru, a 6-foot-4 point guard out of Charlotte, N.C., via a prep school in New Hampshire, is rated a 3-star prospect and gives the Gators another option in the backcourt.
Meanwhile, Florida has 2 other 4-star prospects in 6-foot-8 forward Chase Johnson from Ripley, W.V., and Isaiah Stokes, a 6-foot-8 forward/center via IMG Academy. The latter player’s status for next season is undetermined as he recovers from surgery on an ACL, White said.
And lastly, White has reportedly been in pursuit of a graduate transfer who can provide that missing piece for the team’s depth. As reported by The Gainesville Sun, his targets have included 6-foot-8 Pittsburgh transfer Cam Johnson and 6-foot-5 guard/forward Egor Koulechov from Rice.
So where does all that leave the Gators?
With enough pieces to make another run in 2017-18 if reality meets potential in enough individual cases.
“I do think we could be good and potentially have another really good year,” White said in assessing the roster a couple weeks ago. “But [I] know there is a lot of improvement to make throughout the roster. Individually, each guy can get better in certain areas. And if we do have some attrition, the guys you take this spring will have a big factor in how good you could potentially be.”
Florida has momentum coming off that Elite Eight appearance, and after that breakthrough season, there’s enough reason to believe the program is primed to build upon it.