#25 Florida State 2019-20 Preview

- Ky McKeon

Key Returners: Trent Forrest, MJ Walker, RaiQuan Gray, Devin Vassell
Key Losses: Terance Mann, Mfiondu Kabengele, David Nichols, Christ Koumadje, PJ Savoy, Phil Cofer
Key Newcomers: Dominik Olejniczak (Ole Miss), Patrick Williams, Malik Osborne (Rice), Balsa Koprivica, RayQuan Evans (JUCO), Nathanael Jack (JUCO)


Outlook: Leonard Hamilton may not always get the credit he deserves, but he’s done an excellent job of building the Florida State basketball program over the past 18 years. His Noles have ranked in the KenPom top 30 each of the past three seasons and have made three NCAA Tournaments and taken trips to the Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen in that time-span. Not often do we see a team (outside of Duke and Kentucky) that lost six key pieces ranked near the preseason top 25, but Hamilton’s track record and FSU’s returning and incoming talent suggests the Noles will once again be among the national elite in 2019-20.

Historically, Hamilton teams are all about pushing in transition and forcing the ball to the rim. FSU dialed back the “speed” last season, ranking as Hamilton’s slowest-paced team since 2013-14, but still frequently looked to score on the run off turnovers and the defensive glass. In the halfcourt, expect the Noles to once again be a team dedicated to taking the ball to the rack in an effort to get easy layups or earn trips to the foul line. FSU ranked 2nd in the ACC in FT Rate last season and shooting has never really been a strong suit of a Hamilton-coached squad.

FSU’s personnel seems to always fit perfectly with its preferred style of play. The Noles are consistently one of the biggest and most physically and athletically imposing teams in the country, and this year will be no different. Trent Forrest, a 6’4” 210 lb. point guard, embodies the spirit of FSU basketball. Arguably the team’s most important player from a year ago, Forrest is a talented two-way player that locks down opposing ball handlers with his size and gets into the lane on offense at will. The Hoop Lens screenshot below evidences Forrest’s importance to last year’s Noles squad:

No other FSU player came close to this + / - last season.

Forrest ranked 4th in ACC Defensive Player of the Year voting last season (though was strangely left off the All-Defense Team). He ranked in the top 50 nationally in steal rate last season and notched a few highlight reel defensive plays like this:

Offensively, Forrest is not a threat from downtown, but has ranked in the ACC’s top three in FT Rate each of the past two seasons and improved a so-so 69.5% FT% to 77.9% last year. His rare combination of size, speed, and strength is difficult to stop – even in the competitive ACC:

With Forrest returns MJ Walker, a very highly-touted 5-star recruit back in 2017 that has yet to live up to expectations. Walker was and still will be valuable for his solid defensive play, which is aided by his 6’5” frame, but the now-junior has struggled immensely on the offensive end of the floor. In 2018-19, Walker shot just 35.3% from inside the arc and 32.8% outside the arc and was often the 4th or 5th option on the floor. This season, Walker will need to contribute more on the offensive end, especially in the shooting department. Departures of Mfiondu Kabengele and Terance Mann have left a giant scoring hole in Hamilton’s starting five.

In addition to Walker, Hamilton will hope to see a boost in production from his promising sophomore 4-man RaiQuan Gray. The 6’8” 260 lb. forward started all three games in the NCAA Tournament for FSU and showed flashes of potential for bigger things to come. Gray is a big body, but he’s most valuable as a potential floor spacer at the 4-spot. Fellow sophomore Devin Vassell should also see an uptick in minutes after shooting 41.9% from three last season. He’ll compete with a host of newcomers for a starting spot in FSU’s backcourt.  

Florida State’s incoming talent will help replenish the lost production from a season ago. Two transfers, Dominik Olejniczak from Ole Miss and Malik Osborne from Rice, will bolster a depleted frontcourt. Olejniczak started 32 games for the Rebels last season and should provide a steady low block presence on either of the floor. With range out to 17 feet and an ability to finish consistently at the rim, Olejniczak is an ideal roll man in FSU ball screen sets. Osborne is a versatile power forward that can play out on the wing. He’s capable of hitting the three (though shot only 27.2% as a freshman) and quick enough to drive by slower defenders. Osborne fits the “big and athletic” mold Hamilton consistently looks for in recruits and transfers, and should be an asset on both ends of the floor.

From the JUCO ranks comes two top prospects in RayQuan Evans (#54 per JUCO Recruiting) and Nathanael Jack (#44). Evans is a big-time scorer who can handle the ball, get out in transition and finish through contact. Like Forrest, Evans will function as a defensive stopper and a freight train barreling to the hoop on offense. Jack is a knockdown shooter with a great-looking stroke and the ability to pull from anywhere. He’ll provide outside shooting alongside Vassell on the wing.

Three freshmen, Patrick Williams, Balsa Koprivica, and Naheem McLeod also join the fold this season. Williams, a 6’8” wing who ranks 28th in ESPN’s Class of 2019 rankings, is the key prospect to watch of all the newcomers. Like Osborne, Williams fits the FSU mold with his length and athleticism. He projects as a dangerous two-way player and could find himself in the starting lineup on day one. Koprivica is a top 50 recruit out of Montverde High School. The 7-footer adds to the long line of tall bigs at Florida State and should be a force protecting the rim and scoring on the block. He needs to add a little muscle this offseason, but Koprivica will be a reliable contributor down the road. McLeod, aka “Big Duke”, is a 7’4” center looking to fill the Christ Koumadje role. He’s still very raw (limited to catch and dunk), so is likely a year or two away from consistent contribution.

Hamilton’s returning talent is solid and he has the #13 incoming class in the country, but defense will be the reason FSU challenges near the top of the ACC standings. FSU has always had elite defenses under Hamilton and should once again be a top 30 unit in 2019-20 (the Noles ranked 10th per KenPom last season). Immense size across every position has been a staple of Hamilton rosters and he’ll have that once again this season. Expect to see a healthy dose of full court pressure – Hamilton pressed more in 2018-19 (30% of possessions) than he has in the past six seasons and his squad ranked 34th in the country in points per possession allowed in pressing situations (0.72 PPP), per Synergy.

Bottom Line: Despite the roster turnover, Florida State is not going anywhere. The Noles should be a top 5 or 6 ACC squad this season and earn another bid to the NCAA Tournament. If Williams can become a star right away and Walker realizes his potential, FSU could challenge for a top-3 seed in March.