Why is Florida better without Bradley Beal and Erving Walker?

Peter G. Aiken-US PRESSWIRE

Florida's evolution from a very good team in 2011-12 to a potential national champion in 2012-13 has something to do with Bradley Beal's departure. But it's got a lot more to do with Erving Walker's.

Our friends at Our Two Bits came through with the most provocative Gators read of the week, with Paul Sjoberg penning a piece asking whether Florida's better without Bradley Beal. It's an interesting thesis, but I found it sort of poorly-supported, and I don't agree with the argument as much as I do the thesis.

Take this point for example:

It's going to be a simple explanation: addition by subtraction.

The 2012-2013 Gator Basketball Squad is a more complete "team" without Beal. This year's team has successfully replaced Beal's scoring, and is playing MUCH better team defense.

Part of the reason Florida's replaced Beal's scoring is that he wasn't Florida's leading scorer last year: Kenny Boynton was. And Boynton averaged 15.9 points per game, the most since Nick Calathes had 17.2 per game in 2008-09. But it's also about better distribution of the points: Florida had five guys scoring 10 points per game in 2011-12 (Boynton, Beal, Walker, Erik Murphy, and Patric Young), but has four guys scoring 11 per game in 2012-13 (Boynton, Murphy, Mike Rosario, and Young) and four more scoring at least five (Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, and Michael Frazier), whereas last year's team only went six deep on nickle-a-night scorers, with Yeguete joining the starting five.

Florida's top five scorers in 2011-12 averaged a combined 63.5 points per game; the top six put in 70.1 per contest; the top seven had 74.5. And while Florida's top five scorers in 2012-13 are averaging 58.0 points per game, and the top six are at 64.8, the top seven are at 71.4, and those players are getting their points far more efficiently.

Consider this: Mike Rosario is doing about what Bradley Beal, did, just more effectively and with less volume. Beal made 44.5 percent of his shots, 33.9 percent of his threes, and 76.2 percent of his free throws; Rosario is making 44.2 percent of his shots, 36.2 percent of his threes, and an astounding 89.5 percent of his free throws. And Boynton, despite his struggles from three, is still making 34.5 percent of his long balls, and is actually slightly more efficient than he was last year, when he was one of the nation's most efficient players until SEC play.

Add in that Wilbekin's significantly more efficient as a scorer than Walker, shooting better percentages from the field and from three, that Murphy's gone from an excellent shooter to a lethal one, that Yeguete's nearly maintained an unsustainable efficiency rating associated with offense consisting almost entirely of putbacks while doing more on the floor, and that Young is almost exactly as good from the field (61.8 percent in 2011-12; 61.1 percent in 2012-13) as he was last year, and it's really not all that surprising that Florida's been fine without Beal on offense.

Florida always had options last year, and Donovan is a genius-level designer of offense, but that offense stagnated because it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. There were almost too many options, and there were certainly too many competing factors: Walker was trying to remake himself as a pass-first point guard, the team was shooting threes at an alarming rate (Florida was seventh nationally in percentage of points from threes), Beal and his teammates only gradually realized he was Florida's best player and never fully committed to showcasing him as such, and the Erv and Kenny Jump Shooters' Ball would eventually doom Florida against Louisville.

This year, Florida's got a purer point guard in Wilbekin who very rarely takes bad shots, and usually has four shooters better than the Walker-Boynton-Beal-Murphy quartet on the floor in the Wilbekin-Boynton-Rosario-Murphy foursome. This year, the offense doesn't do too much in transition (a frequent Walker sin) and doesn't forget Young underneath nearly as often. This year, Florida isn't as reliant as it was on one player ... because Boynton's taking fewer shots (11.5 shots per game last year; 10.2 shots per game this year), and because Wilbekin takes far fewer shots than Walker did, and getting the ball to a more efficient Murphy has been a huge help.

And this year, Florida's offense has been far more consistent, with just four games of more than 1.25 points per possession, three games of less than 1.10, and 10 within that range; last year's team had 13 of under 1.10 and eight of more than 1.25, but just 16 within that range. Being a lower-variance team on offense is bad in the sense that incredible nights are less common, but Florida's so good on offense that consistent excellence is more valuable than transcendent potential anyway. And Beal and Walker were higher-variance players than Rosario and Wilbekin are.

And then there's the defense.

Arguing that Florida's defense is better without Beal by hinting that Beal wasn't a good defender rankles me, because he was, and Florida's defensive limitations last year were usually not his fault. He had lapses, but the Gators struggled on defense because of Walker far more than because of Beal.

The best argument that Beal was a problem is rooted in Beal's versatility allowing Billy Donovan to play really small lineups, ones that had Beal (who is somewhere between 6'3" and 6'5") guarding small forwards. The utility of those smallball looks was valuable on offense, where defenses had to respect four shooters (Walker, Boynton, Beal, and Murphy) and three very good slashers (Walker, Boynton, and Beal), but they meant that taller guards were going to be able to shoot over good contests all day.

And it's very hard for me to blame that on Beal, because that wasn't just the case with smallball lineups: At any point when Walker was on the court, Florida had a defensive liability based on his height alone, and the liability presented by Walker, Boynton, and Beal in the backcourt, with no players over 6'4", was a constant problem.

The Gators allowed opponents to make 34.2 percent of their threes last year; this year, with Wilbekin's height and superb defense on the opponents' best guy taking the place of Boynton's very good, if height-limited, defense, Boynton's superior defense being deployed instead of Beal's good defense on the second-best guy, and Rosario's decent defense replacing Walker's limited defense, Florida's biggest issues on defense are how to hide a decent defender in Rosario and how to make sure Murphy isn't torched by a fast player in the post.

2012-13 Florida's more flexible on defense, too, because it can use a zone that doesn't feature a 5'8" guard, and Donovan's been able to flick between man and zone and turn up the pressure with either now that he doesn't have to hide Walker.

Basically, if you're trying to argue that Florida's better on defense without Beal without considering the impact of swapping Walker out for Wilbekin, you've lost the plot.

And if you're trying to fault Beal for his turnovers without faulting Walker for his, you're going down a similar road. Sjoberg uses assist-to-turnover ratio and raw turnover numbers to compare Beal and Walker, and that just doesn't work for me: Beal played more minutes than Walker, and was seeing the other team's best defender every night, and yet he turned the ball over on 16.9 percent of possessions, while Walker turned it over on 17.9 percent of possessions. And this bit is just dumb:

But Beal had a 1.05 assist to turnover ratio, and Walker's was 2.24. No current Gator guard has an assist to turnover ratio as low as Beal's was last year.

Yes, of course Beal had a low assist-to-turnover ratio, because he wasn't being asked to create for others. Walker was the primary point guard last year, and Wilbekin and Boynton were the secondary ones; Wilbekin and Boynton have been the primary point guards this year, with Rosario tasked with that role on the rare occasions they're both sitting. Rosario's assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.37, which isn't exactly great, but he does more creating for others than Beal did, and he should: Beal had exceedingly rare gifts that allowed him to create for himself, and was excellent at doing that, so he did; Rosario's a better passer and creator for others, and so he plays those roles more often.

And Sjoberg neglects to mention that Walker, a fourth-year senior at point guard, had a lower assist-to-turnover ratio than the 2.57 Wilbekin has posted, even though Wilbekin is turning the ball over on 21.1 percent of his possessions. And that Walker ratio is good, better than the 2.03 Nick Calathes put up in his Florida career; Wilbekin's is fantastic, the sort of number that would make him an All-SEC candidate at point guard even if he weren't also a good shooter and a great defender.

Florida's been able to replace Beal and Walker with a combination of Rosario and Wilbekin on offense and defense, and while neither Rosario nor Wilbekin is as good or as talented as Beal alone (and they may be less talented than Beal and Walker together), they have combined to be more efficient on offense and stingier on defense. Rosario being essentially as good as Beal has helped, but Wilbekin being better than Walker has helped immensely.

Florida's not better without Bradley Beal because he was a problem, or because he was a turnover machine, or even because he wasn't as great a shooter as advertised, and Florida might have been even better in 2012-13 with Beal than Florida is right now without him. But Florida's better, undeniably, and has improved without Beal and without Walker.

That's not really a knock on the most talented player Florida's likely to ever have or the leading three-point shooter in Gators history: Each played instrumental roles in getting that team to the Elite Eight.

But it's a testament to how good and special this crew of Gators truly is that it's starting to seem like not advancing past the Elite Eight would be a disappointment.

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