Florida begins its 2011-2012 men's basketball season November 11 with against Jackson State. We'll be previewing the Gators almost every weekday from now until then. We'll call it 15 For 15, in honor of Billy Donovan's 15th season as Florida's head coach.
Florida's strength throughout the Billy Donovan Era has been its consistently great backcourt play. From Jason Williams to Teddy Dupay to Brett Nelson to Anthony Roberson to Taurean Green to Erving Walker, the Gators have had guard after guard capable of lighting up the scoreboard with a flurry of jumpers. But Donovan's 2011-12 backcourt may be his finest ever: starters Walker and Kenny Boynton return from a team that went to the Elite Eight, uber-recruit Bradley Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario provide their own scoring punch, and Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather could provide the depth necessary to press whenever Donovan feels it necessary.
But can that backcourt coexist? Donovan is stressing the importance of being "very unselfish"; let's take a look at what that will require from all of his guards.
Walker's the best, if not purest, point guard in the group. He's quick and pesky defensively, and just as quick to jack up a heat-check three from 28 feet. His shot selection improved significantly from 2009 (when he shot a beyond miserable 33.9 percent from the field) to 2010 (a more respectable 41.1 percent), and he made good on his sniper tendencies with a sterling 38.5 percent mark from deep.
But while he had the best Offensive Rating on Florida's 2011 team, his assists per game and Assist Rate lagged behind Chandler Parsons', and he committed more turnovers than the gangly point forward. Walker needs to be more aggressive as a dribble-kick player and more decisive as a passer. He'll have a shooter as good as he is to dish to in Beal, and options nearly as good in Boynton and Rosario; it would be a shame if he forced his shot every time rather than distributing the ball and waiting for the open shots that will come when opposing defenses are forced to respect every shooter.
Readers who have known me from the Internet (and especially Twitter) for more than a few years know that I have a love-hate relationship with Boynton. I noticed and loved that he relishes playing defense early on, and that made me happy; nearly every shot he takes, though, makes me angry. That dates back to his disastrous freshman year in 2009, when he had one of the greenest lights in America and made just 72 of 245 threes, a 29.4 percent mark that is marginally better than the depth-challenged Wilbekin's was in 2010 despite Boynton taking more than five times as many threes as Wilbekin did.
Now, it's actually not a terrible thing to shoot a lower percentage from three-point range than from two: shooting 33.3 percent from deep is like shooting 50 percent from within the arc, because the expected value of a shot from a player with those averages is the same: 1.0 points per shot. Better shooters should shoot more threes and fewer long two-pointers because of it. But the expected value of a Boynton triple attempt was .884 points per shot in 2009; for twos, it was .958 points per shot, making him one of the rare shooting guards who might have been better off stepping inside. And he was the only player in the top 50 of attempted three-pointers in 2009 who shot less than 30 percent from the field.
It was bad, is what I am saying.
Fortunately, Boynton improved his shot and his selectivity in 2010, shooting slightly fewer threes and making 33.1 percent of them. (And, amusingly, his shooting on two-pointers declined slightly, making threes a better choice.) He needs to continue doing that in 2011, and continue playing the sort of defense he was capable of by the end of the year, when he hounded John Jenkins and Jimmer Fredette into miserable shooting performances that sank Vanderbilt and BYU, respectively. If Boynton locks down on defense, he'll earn the shots, even the stupid ones.
Early returns on Beal are as good as could be hoped: He's a tremendous shooter who draws Ray Allen comparisons, a mature player who Donovan seems very impressed with, and an athletic enough wing player to guard the occasional small forward. He's already the highest-rated freshman Florida has ever recruited; there's a good chance he will also be the best freshman in Florida history.
But he's going to need to do that without upsetting the apple cart. Walker and Boynton are the established stars, the ones on the front of the media guide (PDF). Beal is the upstart, the incandescent talent who may use Gainesville as a one-year way station on the path to NBA stardom. I think he'll start, at some point if not immediately, and I think he might well be better than both of the guys ahead of him before long, if he isn't already. That's a recipe for rancor and squabbling, so Beal needs to not agitate for playing time or grouse about being better than his elders, instead letting his play do the talking and earn him the role it deserves. I think, fortunately, that he will.
(Also, someone needs to figure out whether it's going to be Bradley Beal or Brad Beal. I imagine Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale will say both, but I want to stick with just one. Got an opinion?)
While Boynton was having his miserable freshman year, Rosario was toiling as a one-man show at Rutgers — and shooting almost as poorly from deep. Rosario made 78 of 239 threes in 2009-10, giving him two straight seasons of at least 239 threes taken without making 80, a dubious distinction at best. And Rosario's three-point shooting in his freshman year at Rutgers was almost as bad as Boynton's in his freshman year: He made 76 of 252 triples then.
There are mitigating factors — Big East vs. SEC competition, Rosario playing for an awful Rutgers team and making just 15 fewer threes than the rest of his team combined in that freshman year, Rosario needing to take so many shots he ended up in the top 40 in usage in each of his two years in Piscataway — but what I have seen from Rosario so far doesn't convince me that he'll be a substantially different player than Boynton is, with the exception of less effective defense. That's not a knock, necessarily: If Rosario can be made into a premier bench scorer, he could give Florida's offense a threat from outside when Wilbekin is spelling Walker at the point.
Rosario's been a model citizen since transferring, and saw full well how transfers can turn into stars when Vernon Macklin developed into one for Florida last year. Hopefully, he realizes his role might mean producing in relief rather than from the opening tip.
Wilbekin's sacrifice might be the easiest of the entire backcourt: He has to play defense and pass, the two things he is best at. Wilbekin looked tentative at best when shooting in 2010-11, and ranked well behind his backcourt mates in shooting proficiency. But his quick hands and smart defensive play got him into the top 100 in Steal Percentage, and his length makes him a match-up problem for any number of undersized guards. (I imagine Erv loves going against Scottie in practice.)
All he has to do is deal with the fact that he will only very rarely be the first scoring option on a play, know that his role is valuable, and commit to playing it as well as possible. He'll still be the second-youngest player on the team — Beal is about three months older — and will still be praised for maturity beyond his years. He would help the Gators tremendously by showing it.
There may be no bigger mystery on Florida's roster than Prather, who has drawn Corey Brewer comparisons because of his length and Tennessee roots. But he's been very quiet in his time as a Gator, which is, well, not something anyone ever accused Brewer of being on the court. Prather had the worst Offensive Rating and Turnover Rate (a stunning 35 percent) of any Florida player in 2010-11, and couldn't leverage his athleticism and length as a defensive stopper. Now, with an even bigger logjam ahead of him, it's on Prather to find a way to make it onto the court.
The best way to do that? Defensive versatility. Prather is quick enough to guard most shooting guards, but he's also got length that no other member of the backcourt has, and would be an even more useful player if he can switch from small forwards to power forwards and allow the Gators to play the insane four-guard Villanova lineup without sacrificing either speed or an ability to defend a power forward effectively. It's better for Prather to strive for that than pine for shots, in any case.