#6 Florida 2019-20 Preview

-Jim Root

Key Returners: Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Noah Locke
Key Losses:
KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone
Key Newcomers:
Kerry Blackshear (Virginia Tech), Scottie Lewis, Tre Mann, Omar Payne, Jason Jitoboh, Ques Glover


Outlook: If you can figure out what was going on with last year’s Florida squad, please – enlighten me. A tremendous defensive team never really came together offensively for a variety of reasons, most notably because Jalen Hudson’s talent was apparently snatched by the Monstars. Unfortunately, no one informed Mr. Hudson of this issue, as his unrepentant chucking ended up leading the entire SEC in percentage of shots taken while on the court, despite abysmal percentages all year long. Fellow senior wing KeVaughn Allen wasn’t much better, and it’s fairly easy to argue that his best season came as a sophomore.

Mike White now turns the team over to the kids, as five of the Gators’ six best players will be freshmen and sophomores. The “veterans” among those – point guard Andrew Nembhard, shooter Noah Locke, and versatile forward Keyontae Johnson – will need to step into the leadership roles vacated by their confusingly ineffective ex-teammates. Thankfully, that youth will have an experienced star to rely on, as well, due to the massive win of securing Virginia Tech grad transfer Kerry Blackshear’s services over most of the rest of the SEC East. He brings a steadying presence in the paint to a team that lacked one, and his ever-increasing skill level turned him into one of the ACC’s most dangerous players last season. He’s the first true low post threat White has had (sorry, John Egbunu), and that should spark the Gators’ anemic attack.   

To me, the most baffling part of White’s approach to last year’s team was how the Gators smashed the brakes on offense. White’s teams had never been lower than 110th in Average Possession Length, but that number cratered to 291st last year, despite having an athletic and deep roster led by a terrific passer in the lead guard spot (Nembhard). Similarly, the Gators went from 37th nationally in frequency of transition possessions (20.3%) to 251st (14.5%). The numbers did not support this decision, either: Florida’s offense was in the 67th percentile nationally in transition efficiency, per Synergy, while its half court counterpart sat in the 39th percentile.

That should – should – revert back to its old tendency this year, especially to unleash incoming freshman Scottie Lewis, a gazelle of an athlete who is absolutely devastating in the open floor and a potential lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. He tries to dunk everything (and usually succeeds), and he’s one of the fiercest competitors in the entire class, a deadly combination for someone so overflowing with talent. Nembhard was also tremendous in transition last year, both as a finisher and distributor, and he’ll hopefully be told to push the pace as often as possible.

In the half court, though, Nembhard will need to take a significant step in his creation out of the pick-and-roll. Nearly 40% of his possessions ended in this fashion, and he scored a hideous 0.579 points per possession on them, taking ill-advised shots and turning the ball over too often. This is a great read, but the execution is lacking - rather than throwing short-hop groundball, a lob likely results in a Kevarrius Hayes alley-oop:

Tre Mann will also run the offense at times (even with Nembhard on the court, occasionally), and he brings a different element as an electric scorer. He shoots an easy ball from deep (probably the best compliment I can give a shooter – it’s so smooth), and he along with Locke on the wings will put opponents in a bind when trying to help on Nembhard or Lewis.

Additionally, Blackshear brings an entirely new dimension to the offense. When point guard Justin Robinson got hurt, the Hokies started running a lot more action through their skilled big man, and he exploded:

Blackshear had one KenPom “Game MVP” award before Robinson’s injury; after that date, he racked up seven such honors. White can run entire stretches of offense through his new fulcrum, letting Blackshear eat in the post against one-on-one coverage or surgically hitting cutters and shooters against double-teams (his assist rate nearly doubled last year). He’s also an emerging pick-and-pop assassin, and his inside-out game is a nightmare matchup for almost any defender.

Along with fixing the offense, White will also have some interesting decisions, lineup-wise. He has six excellent players for five spots, and the optionality that group provides can be a real advantage if used properly. Blackshear is a star, but White may be tempted to play a hyper-small lineup at times with Nembhard, two scoring guards in Mann and Locke, and two athletic wing/forward types in Lewis and Johnson. A group like that would normally get blitzed inside, but Johnson (a great two-way rebounder) and Lewis (a thoroughly absurd shot-blocker for his size thanks to his length and vertical pop) could at least compete for short stretches. Plus, that lineup would be devastating in White’s pressing schemes, which he brought back in full force last year after a hiatus in 2017-18 (numbers per Synergy):

White traditionally runs a 1-2-2 zone press as more of a tempo-controlling mechanism (rarely fully trapping out of it), but as mentioned, Lewis is a flat-out terror in the transition game and would be a menace at the top of a more pressure-heavy scheme. He along with Nembhard and Johnson would force plenty of turnovers and rushed shots against ill-prepared or inexperienced ball-handlers.

When they aren’t going super small, though, the Gators have plenty of bodies behind Blackshear to soak up minutes. One or two rotation pieces should emerge from the big man group consisting of redshirt junior Dontay Bassett, senior Gorjok Gak, and freshmen Omar Payne and Jason Jitoboh, and that could even allow White to go jumbo at times with Lewis and Johnson manning the wings. Bassett may be the best fit as a run-and-jump big man in the vein of the graduated Kevarrius Hayes, but Payne, the #43 recruit in the country per 247’s consensus rankings, probably offers the most upside if he can carry over his production from the storied Montverde Academy. Gak, who has also struggled with injuries, and Jitoboh can protect the rim once the game slows down into the halfcourt, but neither possesses the type of mobility that White values defensively.

Bottom Line: While young, this Gators squad has an abundance of talent, and securing the nation’s best graduate transfer in Blackshear solidifies them as a national threat. I’m extremely interested to see what happens with the offense now that Hudson and Allen (and Deaundrae Ballard and Mike Okauru) have taken their bricky shooting elsewhere, and White finally has a bona fide interior threat to feed and draw defenders. I’ll also be monitoring Gator games early in the year to see if White unleashes the Nembhard/Mann/Locke/Lewis/ Johnson lineup much/at all, because the ceiling for that group is off the charts. With another athletic roster that looks likely to defend at a high level and some additional offensive firepower, Florida should be in the thick of things in the SEC race, and a (very) extended postseason run is not out of the question.