Late in the final minute of Florida’s NCAA Tournament opener against St. Bonaventure, with the Gators leading by 16 and looking to simply run the clock out, freshman guard Deaundrae Ballard grabbed a steal and took off the other way.
Gators coach Mike White was frantically waving his arms and motioning for Ballard not to score another basket with the game already in hand, but the rookie didn’t see his coach and threw down a final dunk to punctuate the lopsided win Thursday night.
“I talked to Drae and he had no idea,” White said the next day. “He hadn’t been told that before. He hadn’t been in that situation. He told me that he had seen a clip that somebody maybe had tweeted where I was going crazy when he was about to dunk it, but I said, ‘Hey, I’m not mad at you. You’re a freshman. You’ll figure that out.'”
This season has been a learning process in general for Ballard and Florida’s other freshmen.
Among them, only freshman guard Mike Okauru had a real spot in the rotation by the end of the season, averaging 16.5 minutes over the Gators’ two NCAA Tournament games last week.
For the season, Okauru averaged 3.8 points and 11.1 minutes per game.
Meanwhile, freshman forward Isaiah Stokes (ACL) ultimately took a redshirt season while fellow front-court newcomer Chase Johnson had his first campaign undermined by concussions.
And then there was Ballard, who averaged 10.5 minutes per game overall but saw his role diminish down the stretch, playing 5 minutes or fewer in six of the final nine games.
Last year, before Ballard even got to campus, White memorably said he saw some similarities between the incoming freshman and South Carolina standout Sindarius Thornwell, the SEC Player of the Year last season.
White admitted then as he was making the comparison that he probably shouldn’t and that Ballard had a long way to go to reach that level, but he was that excited about the potential of the 6-foot-5 guard from Atlanta.
Ballard had his freshman ups and downs and looked like a raw score-first guard whose confidence wavered as the season progressed. He averaged 3.7 points over 30 games played while shooting 38.4 percent overall and just 15.6 percent from 3-point range (5 of 32).
But behind the scenes, the coaching staff was pleased with the effort and attitude he maintained in practice.
“He’s worked extremely hard. He’s so competitive. He’s missed a couple practices for various ailments, and we could tell as soon as practice started that he wasn’t there,” Florida assistant coach Dusty May said. “He definitely brings a lot to the overall chemistry and morale of our team and he’s going to be a really, really good player. He’s [was] just behind a bunch of older guys that are more seasoned and have a lot of experience and are playing well so the minutes haven’t been as plentiful as he would like. But he’s handled it well.”
All of Florida’s freshmen could be in for bigger roles next year. The Gators needed and will continue to need help in the front court as Stokes and Johnson head into a hopefully healthy year ahead.
Okauru will compete with incoming signee Andrew Nembhard to replace the minutes vacated by senior point guard Chris Chiozza.
And with fellow senior guard Egor Koulechov also moving on and junior guard Jalen Hudson undecided on his future, Ballard could get the opening he’s waited for to make his mark, provided he continues to develop his all-around game.
“A lot of our older guys, they didn’t play a ton as a freshmen. Chiozza didn’t play a lot as a freshman. So there’s a lot of great examples to look at of, success didn’t happen right away,” May said. “You put in your work, you learn the ropes, you learn from your older teammates and you try to fit in and help them win. And then you grow into that role.”
Okauru, who White said was battling his own “freshman blues” earlier this season when his role was smaller, has encouraged Ballard as well, he said.
“We talk about it all the time. I just tell him you’ve just got to stay focused on the goal at hand, we’re trying to win games. Our time is coming,” he had said Friday.
As for Okauru, he knows the situation he’s facing next season with Chiozza gone. As he sat in the corner of Florida’s subdued locker room after the season-ending loss to Texas Tech on Saturday night, Okauru talked about everything he’s learned from Chiozza and how he plans to attack this offseason.
“Just work, stay in the gym as much as I can, work to keep getting better. I don’t want to have this feeling again,” he said.