GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Keith Stone insists his offensive breakout these last two games hasn’t had any dramatic impact on his confidence. It was always there, he says.
The only difference lately has been opportunity.
Stone came somewhat out of nowhere to score 14 points at Alabama on Tuesday night for only his third double-digit scoring effort of the season and first in more than three weeks. Then he did it again Saturday against Georgia, pouring in a season-best 17 points in a season-high 28 minutes to help key another win.
“It’s really just me locking in, focusing and playing defense. It was no issue with confidence. I just had to play defense,” Stone said after the game Saturday. “I wouldn’t say it’s a breakout game. It’s just, my number’s called and I stepped up to the plate.”
And suddenly the No. 23 Gators (14-3, 5-0 SEC) have yet another intriguing option in their deep rotation.
Stone has been a model of efficiency these last two games, hitting 9-of-12 shots overall and 6-of-7 3-pointers, the last of which gave the Gators the lead in overtime as they seized the final momentum swing of a back-and-forth game to prevail over Georgia.
“You know what you’re going to get from Keith every single day. So nothing has changed with him in practice, nothing has really changed with him in games, other than he’s fallen into a couple of shots that he’s made,” Gators coach Mike White said. “And then all of a sudden you keep him in there a little bit longer and he’s able to show by earning more and more minutes what he’s capable of doing. I will say from November there’s been a big difference with his defense.”
White acknowledged that Stone’s minutes were limited early in the season while the coaches waited for his defense to come around. The story of his development goes back further than that, though.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Deerfield Beach, Fla., redshirted as a true freshman last year while changing his body. As he tells it, he came in “fat” at 235-240 pounds before dropping down to 227 and building himself back up to 245 with muscle.
“When I first got here it was all fat. Right now it’s all muscle and cut-up,” he said.
And even though he wasn’t playing in games, White feels Stone also gained valuable experience through that redshirt season.
“First off I thought Preston (Greene) and Duke (Werner) did a tremendous job with him, and he himself. You’ve got to credit Keith as much as anyone. He really changed his body and really increased his athleticism, his wind, his body composition, the whole deal. He’s quicker, he’s faster,” White said. “And … being the focal point of the scout team, every team that we played, Keith Stone, whether it was the 2, the 3, the 4, we allowed him to play that role and get a lot of reps that way with guys like Justin Leon and Dorian Finney-Smith battling you every single day.”
Finney-Smith, who is now with the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, mentored Stone and there’s a running joke within the team now that often times when the coaches will mention something to him, the second-year forward will respond that Smith had told him the same thing.
This recent surge isn’t Stone’s first breakout. He had 15 points and 8 rebounds in a late-November win against Miami, but he averaged just 4.8 points in the next eight games before this latest outburst.
With the Gators’ depth, Stone’s role may continue to remain inconsistent, but the more often he plays as he did this past week, the more opportunities will come his way.
“Again, he’s in a war every day with some experienced guys who have been there and done that and had some success and (are) a little bit older, so it’s difficult to maintain a certain level of confidence when your minutes aren’t what they were that night or what they could be, but he’s maintained a really good attitude,” White said. “He’s about the right things. He’s a great young man, he’s worked, he’s had some really good practices so I think now he’s back to where he was a month ago where he was feeling really good about himself.”
Stone understands his place in the pecking order, and he’s confident he’s ready for whatever opportunities come his way.
“Basically, everyone’s number’s going to get called, you just don’t know what night,” he said.