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After commitments of Scottie Lewis, Omar Payne, Florida’s 2019 class is staggering

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The Gators are building what may be their best recruiting class ever.

Scottie Lewis is going to be popping jerseys that say “Florida” and “Gators” next year.
Courtside Films

On Monday, I got a text from a friend — one who calls me Andrew because people in my life who know and have always known me as Andy love to call me Andrew for comedic effect — while I was in Buena Vista, Georgia, a city I did not know existed prior to Monday.

“Andrew, is this a big commit for Coach White?”

My immediate response, without checking Twitter, was “Did Scottie Lewis commit?”

The answer then was no, as it was only top-50 big man Omar Payne who had committed to the Gators on Monday night.

Last night, after I finally got home from my sojourn to Starkville and back and took a much-needed evening nap, I got another text from that same friend:

“So is it a big deal that Scottie Lewis committed?”

I gave him a longer response with some context.

But I could have gone with “Is it ever.”

Lewis, a five-star recruit from New Jersey’s Ranney School, committed to the Gators on Tuesday, revealing his commitment via Twitter and Instagram after notorious observer of when it is March Jon Rothstein broke that it was impending. His commitment video’s a good one, as these things go: It’s a little too scripted to feel like an authentic portrayal of Lewis, but it has him speaking eloquently about how he’s gotten to this point, and it ends with him doing a chomp in the middle of his high school gym and getting mobbed by teammates and friends as the instrumental to Chance the Rapper’s “No Problem” plays.

Try watching that last bit and not grinning. It’ll be tough.

Payne, on the other hand, opted for a lower-key commitment video, one with no voiceover and a generic turn-up track in the background. I suppose that’s only fair, given that Payne is just a four-star player and the No. 38 player in the country for the high school class of 2019 per the 247Sports Composite: He knew, almost certainly, that Lewis was set to publicly commit later this week, and that his pledge would only be the biggest commitment the Gators got this week in a purely literal sense. (Payne is big, you see.)

But that’s testament to the power of Lewis — the No. 11 player in that 247Composite, and a 6’5” wing with great athleticism and scoring touch — making his pledge known: It overshadows the commitment of Payne, a player who would have been the highest-ranked player in every Florida class this decade save the 2014 class highlighted by Devin Robinson, the 2013 class led by Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, and the 2011 class that contained Bradley Beal and little else.

Payne is seen as a better recruit by that same 247Composite than KeVaughn Allen, Chris Chiozza, Casey Prather, and a whole lot of non-headliners from recent Florida history. Payne is also the least of Florida’s three scholarship recruits for its 2019 class — and could be the least of four, ultimately, though we’ll get to that.

When a 6’9” center with extraordinarily long arms, a lot of room to grow, and a top-50 pedigree is the lesser of two players to commit to your program in a week and the least of three major names to pledge to your program in a given recruiting class, you are doing something beyond rolling — you’re competing with, and beating, the best of the best.

Florida’s recruiting class — which currently consists of Lewis, Payne, and five-star guard Tre Mann (who committed in late August) as a trio of likely scholarship recipients and Alex Klatsky, a high school and AAU teammate of Lewis who is committed as a preferred walk-on and has an excellent shot and an enviably thick head of hair — is now No. 4 nationally in the 247Composite. And that ranking, if anything, may be low, because Florida’s average for the 2019 class — a stunning 99.03 — is tops in the 247Composite, and better than any average put up by a school not named Duke or Kentucky in the last five years.

This isn’t just Florida recruiting well compared to its historical trends or Florida landing a couple of good players: It’s Florida, in the fourth year of Mike White’s tenure and with his program’s identity established, building a recruiting class that stands among the best assembled on paper in college basketball this decade.

And it is a class that makes a ton of sense for what White wants to do.

Lewis is the sort of wing that fits beautifully into White’s system as a primary scoring option and/or shooter on offense and a potentially devastating defender. He’s too slight right now to capably defend bigger wings, but Lewis could be a menace to guards, and should be a terror in transition.

Similarly, Mann — a combo guard who gets Stephen Curry comps — might be the sort of free-wheeling shooter that White has happily given a green light during his time at Florida (coughs, points at Egor Koulechov) while trying to cajole Allen and others to be more assertive on the offensive end.

Payne, meanwhile, is an athletic big who could be a great help defender and good rebounder as a forward alongside the more formidable Isaiah Stokes or serve as a capable small-ball center — and given that Florida has played one true frontcourt player often under White, and that Payne has the skills to be a better collegiate player than Kevarrius Hayes or Gorjok Gak, the players White has most often used in that role, you can see his fit clearly.

Hell, even Klatsky is a great fit. Florida has long had uses for sharpshooters, dating back well before White’s time — Klatsky is going to get a lot of Lee Humphrey comparisons — and a walk-on with the skills to drill threes on a second unit is valuable on his own. That player being so lethal from three he could work his way onto the court and get hidden or not be a total liability on defense would obviously be wonderful.

Whether any of these 2019 recruits will end up playing with players already on Florida’s roster — like 2018 recruit Andrew Nembhard, an advanced point guard drawing such rave reviews so far that there’s been quiet speculation that he might enter the 2019 NBA Draft, or Keith Stone, whose two remaining years of eligibility might only get half used — remains to be seen. But when Stone leaves, Florida will have finally turned over its roster entirely from Billy Donovan recruits to players who decided to be Gators because of Mike White — and a signature 2019 class that includes multiple five-star recruits is a powerful reminder that Florida can land big names without Donovan, and has not ceded its spot on the national stage after losing a Hall of Fame-bound coach to the NBA.

While Florida was acquitting itself nicely on the floor under White — rebounding from a lost last year under Donovan to make an NIT run in 2015-16, getting to the Elite Eight in dramatic fashion in 2016-17, and looking at times like a national title contender in 2017-2018 before succumbing to a tough Texas Tech team in the 2018 NCAA Tournament — the Gators had not, in truth, done a lot of noise-making on the recruiting trail under White before this summer.

Florida was the first school to land a commitment from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and did so very early in White’s tenure, but could not hang on to the future lottery pick when Kentucky and other bigger names came calling. And while White hung onto four-stars Allen, Hayes, and Stone after Donovan’s abrupt departure in 2015, the Gators didn’t ink another four-star player until the 2017 class, when they pulled in Chase Johnson, DeAundrae Ballard, and Stokes — all of whom have yet to make significant impacts in games, unless we’re classifying Ballard traumatizing every Florida fan into groaning at his shot selection as a significant impact.

Arguably, the White recruits with the greatest impacts so far have not been high school recruits but transfers, as Florida has gotten good to great play from JUCO transfer Justin Leon, College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry, and Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson over the last three years. And while that might change this year if Nembhard is as advertised, that’s not something that would point to White breaking through with instant-impact high school recruits.

Except he has.

Lewis is a player a lot of schools, most notably Kentucky, wanted badly. So are Mann, who picked Florida over Tennessee, and Payne, who opted for the Gators over Florida State and Louisville. Florida will also remain in hot pursuit of C.J. Walker, a four-star power forward from Orlando’s Oak Ridge High, despite not obviously having a spot for a fourth scholarship recruit on its 2019-20 roster — and while Oregon is trending for Walker, the Gators are set to host him later this month.

But with or without Walker or a separate fourth player in this 2019 class, Florida has now stamped itself as a program that can do the work to beat out even the biggest names on the recruiting trail — and Florida was hanging with (or, in the case of Kentucky in 2017-18, sweeping) those teams on the court without five-star talent.

Few close observers of college basketball — outside of the contingent of Florida fans so spoiled by Donovan that they regard his tenure as a flawless ideal, anyway — have ever really questioned White’s skills as a coach or developer of talent. He’s molded fun, fast teams out of rosters that have been only been relatively good at both Louisiana Tech and Florida, and he’s won 20 games in his last six seasons, only failing to crack that mark in his first year, when he inherited a 12-20 squad and turned it into an 18-16 outfit. At its best under White, Florida has played and looked like a national championship contender, despite some significant roster limitations.

Improved recruiting is likely to be the best possible fix for those roster limitations.

Replacing, say, Allen — who is maybe among the top 25 players in Florida’s history, but has more than a few flaws — with a more talented player like Lewis? That bumps up Florida’s baseline. Adding players like Mann and Payne, who might be more potent or well-rounded versions of players we’ve seen White succeed with already? That helps push Florida’s ceiling higher. Creating continuity by bringing in four- and five-star players that might stick around rather than having to rely on transfers to get in where they fit in? That helps pour a foundation stronger than most in college basketball.

And Florida fans know from just this decade that highly-touted recruits can fail to pan out (hi, Chris) or settle at a level below what they were expected to be without truly busting (hey, Kasey), and know from a pair of extraordinary recruiting classes that only became so long after ink met paper and an extraordinary class that was only so on paper that any final verdicts on this 2019 class will have to wait. There’s no need to remind any Florida fans but the most foolish of that.

Yet just this recruiting suggests a sea change in Florida’s favor.

Scottie Lewis chose Florida over Kentucky despite Kentucky really wanting him to not do that, and Kentucky fans are going to be amusingly sore and bitter about that for a while. A Sea of Blue’s Tuesday writeup on Lewis picking Florida, which is rife with back-handed compliments, closes with “Kentucky will be just fine in 2019.”

And, jokes aside, Kentucky will be just fine in 2019. The Wildcats have two players ranked ahead of Lewis committed in their 2019 class, and John Calipari’s roster at the moment is sure to be littered with five-stars. Kentucky’s bad years of late are a result of great players failing to coalesce as great teams, and though there’s plenty to criticize Calipari for in those failures, his ability to recruit those great players in droves is why going 26-11 and bowing out in the Sweet Sixteen is so damn disappointing to Big Blue Nation.

Major college basketball programs only reach that rarefied air of being “just fine” after whiffing on a major recruitment in a few ways.

They can do it by recruiting one-and-done talent very well on a consistent basis, something that is arguably being done by Duke and Kentucky alone and something that can only be attempted if you start by recruiting one-and-done talent very well in a single cycle. They can do it by developing players within their program very well on a consistent basis, something that is arguably being done better by Gonzaga and Villanova than any other schools. They can do it by marrying recruiting and development, too — something that those four above-named schools have done, sure, but also something that North Carolina did en route to its 2017 national title and that Arizona, Kansas, Michigan and other schools that have been perennial powers can do.

That third way is the best way for any school not named Duke or Kentucky to compete for national titles right now. Beating out those truest of blue-bloods for top talent is more roulette than chess, though, and programs that can snag top-tier recruits that the Blue Devils and Wildcats want better have a plan other than doubling down on red after they land them, lest they top out where Lonzo Ball-led UCLA or Trae Young-helmed Oklahoma ultimately did.

Florida, which has been competitive as a program while doing more to raise minnows than harpoon sharks, is poised to take that third way. And if White and his assistants can walk that upward path without falling off for long enough, there will come a time when I, too, could huff that “Florida will be just fine” after missing on a big-name recruit — because, cold comfort though it may seem in the moment, it’ll be true.

And between now and then, Florida might put up a banner. Or two. Or a few.