The Florida Gators landing coveted Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. last week was supposed to be the move that solidified their 2019-20 roster as the best one Mike White has assembled in Gainesville.
Instead, it seems to have triggered one last bit of attrition, as reports from late Wednesday suggest redshirt sophomore Isaiah Stokes has entered the NCAA’s transfer portal with the intent to head somewhere other than Florida.
Those reports — initiated by Stadium’s Jeff Goodman and elaborated on by Gator Country’s Eric Fawcett — suggest largely that Stokes sees inadequate playing time for himself in 2019-20 after the addition of Blackshear, a largely defensible reaction to the former Hokie’s arrival even if Stokes was likely in line for a bump in minutes.
Stokes, the younger brother of Tennessee star Jarnell, redshirted while recovering from a torn ACL in 2017-18, then played just 7.1 minutes per game and in just 26 of 36 contests in his redshirt freshman season after a prolonged effort to lose weight and condition himself to play effectively in White’s system. But Stokes was actually the focal point of Florida’s offense when he was on the court — his usage rate of 26.3 percent was the highest on the team — despite his offensive rating (87.1) being the worst of any Gator and his effective field goal percentage (45.9) being third from last among the 11 players to see significant minutes.
And that combination of being played sparingly but relied on heavily in those moments seemed like a clear signal from White and his staff that Stokes could have a significant role with Florida if he continued to slim down and improve his conditioning. Even though he didn’t play in two of Florida’s final five games (during a stretch when Kevarrius Hayes was at his most effective as a Gator), and got no more than three minutes in the other three, Stokes made extended appearances against Kentucky (13 minutes, six points, one eye-opening driving dunk) and Missouri (18 minutes, six points, one rebound, two assists) that showcased his surprisingly quick feet and superb court sense.
It has always been easy to project what Stokes could be if he ever got into truly excellent shape. But that has always required some squinting.
And Blackshear is now set to be Florida’s starter at center — or at a forward/center role, anyway — and is a player who could very easily carry a load of 30 or more minutes per game. Stokes just sat behind Hayes as he did that, and was not competing with the then-injured Gorjok Gak nor a freshman like Omar Payne for the remaining minutes up front, just the smaller and more mobile Dontay Bassett.
And the assortment of other weapons Florida now has to bring off its bench could have meant that even a boost in minutes for Stokes led to a reduction in role. It seems likely that the Gators’ second unit will be led by scoring guard Tre Mann or whatever subset of sophomores Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke, and Keyontae Johnson stays on the floor with it, which might reallocate the usage that sometimes went to Stokes with more offensively limited lineups on the floor.
In short, Stokes isn’t wrong to see his window for starring at Florida as one rapidly closing or even slammed shut as a result of Blackshear’s transfer. But Florida’s coaches probably aren’t wrong to have built a team that shrank Stokes’s potential roles, especially if what Fawcett writes about friction between Stokes and that staff is accurate:
Sources tell me the decision for the Gators and Stokes to part ways had elements relating to disagreements both on and off the court. Stokes’ well-known weight issues were a constant battle between him and the coaching staff and it was getting to a point where it was difficult to see how he could earn a regular shift.
And Florida also isn’t likely to miss Stokes that much in 2019-20. Blackshear is an upgrade on Hayes as the Gators’ new workhorse up front, and the trio of Bassett, Gak and Payne is more fortification for the Florida frontcourt than Bassett and Stokes provided behind Hayes in 2018-19. (Massive freshman Jason Jitoboh, who will likely redshirt to slim down, is also perhaps capable of approximating what Stokes did if absolutely necessary.)
If Stokes leaves and finds a program where he can both be comfortable and dedicate himself to becoming the athlete he’ll have to be if he wants to become the great player he can be, this will work out for him.
Whether or not he does that, though, this will probably work out just fine for Florida.