As the lights descend on packed out crowds in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center night after night, the members of the Gator basketball team line the court to form an alley for starter introductions. Five other guys sit on the bench, waiting to hear their name called. When it is, they stand to applause and walk to their place at center court. It’s the only time they come of the bench for the night…symbolically speaking anyways.
Current redshirt junior Dorian Finney-Smith had to spend near the entirety of the 2013-2014 season as part of that supporting alley.
He was a forward that many talking heads hailed would be a starter at any other SEC school, and he had the resume. A transfer from Virginia Tech, Finney-Smith spent his one season with the Hokies playing in all 33 games and making 30 starts. He was also named an ACC All-Freshman, averaging 6.3 points per game and 7 rebounds.
After sitting out the NCAA mandated season, Finney-Smith found himself as part of a basketball anomaly, a veteran laden team perfectly capable of handling thing son their own. He started only two games during the 2013-14 season, resigning himself as first of the bench for the Florida Gators.
The new role took some getting used to.
“I think last year coming off the bench was one of those things where he wanted to fit in”, head coach Billy Donovan explains, “and he did have a good year for us, and did play a substantial amount of minutes coming off the bench and had some veteran guys around him that helped, but he was never one of those guys that wanted to inject himself and do more.”
The “ultimate team guy”, Donovan says Finney-Smith’s pacifying attitude of not rocking the boat was almost a catch-22.
“He is very much more concerned about the team than himself”, Donovan credits. “He never wanted to hurt chemistry, and at times last year we needed him to do more.”
His performance off the bench didn’t go unnoticed though, and “Doe-Doe” was named the SEC’s 6th Man of the Year, given annually to the conference’s best non-regular starter.
As the 6th Man of the Year, Finney-Smith led the team both in total rebounds (247) and per-game average (6.7), and averaging 13.9 points per game while showing flashes of the starter that could be with such performances as a 22 point night in an overtime win versus Arkansas.
But with a new season comes a new role, and it’s one that Finney-Smith has grown into quite comfortably. And it’s not going unnoticed either.
When expounding on the differences between last season’s team and this season’s, Donovan is quick to note the progress Doe-Doe has made.
“By far the greatest growth I’ve seen is in Dorian [Finney-Smith] from the standpoint that he’s been relatively consistent this season.”
That consistency has been most noticeable in his shooting, which some feared was in danger of extinction when at one point last season, Doe-Doe missed 22 straight three-point shots.
Guard Kasey Hill said with each missed shot, the next one would become harder to hit for Doe-Doe.
“Whenever he would make a mistake, he would just put his head down and couldn’t really get out of that funk.”
Now, as that starter, Finney-Smith is leading the team in points (13.8) and rebounds (5.4). This mean is found after factoring in a stretch of games in which Dorian played with a hairline fracture in his left hand. It wasn’t even until a 25 point appearance against Jacksonville on December 14 that Finney-Smith says he was even able to properly use that hand.
In fact, if you deduct three of the four games from the time period that Finney-Smith’s hand was at it’s worst (the games being 6 pts against UAB, 4 against North Carolina and 7 versus Kansas), then his season average would instead look something like 15.9 points per game.
Hill says it’s guys playing Dorian’s old role, that of supporting cast, that has helped snap him “out of that funk”, in both encouragement and the self-contained knowledge in Finney-Smith that he has to play better for them.
“I think he’s gained a lot of confidence”, Hill continues. “He doesn’t get down on himself as much as he used to last year. We help him, I mean I always say something to him but I think it’s more of the team helping him out and he knows that he has to do it in order for our team to be successful.”
Guard Eli Carter, who has also had to live through a season on the bench, sees the change as well.
“He’s more consistent. He’s a lot consistent this year”, Carter says.
“He’s become a team guy and he’s leading by example. He’s playing a really high level and it’s really good to see. I’m really happy for him.”
Maybe the difference comes purely from the role; having to adapt to that role as a starter and all that comes with it.
It’s entirely possible that the average difference of four minutes of playing time, from bench to starter, has forced Finney-Smith to transform into the leader Donovan has been looking for.
Carter says it’s more of a natural progression than just simply flipping a switch, but it’s there nonetheless.
“I thought he was pretty good last year. There were a lot of veterans last year so he had to play a back role, but this year he’s stepping up and being that guy.”
Being that guy has resulted in a more vocal role for Finney-Smith, who can often be seen on the bench during his breaks, yelling out plays, tips and encouragement to his teammates on the court.
For Hill, that’s what he needs from his elder.
“Yea Doe-Doe is definitely becoming one of the more vocal guys. I always hear him on the court, he always say something to me and I like that.”
Dorian himself says this new aspect to his game has been a slower progression than the basketball stuff which comes easy, but it’s coming along “some naturally, some [from] Coach D.
It’s a challenge just trying to be a leader on the court”, Finney-Smith admits. “But I know what it takes to win so if I know I gotta let other guys know too.”
For Donovan though, giving Finney-Smith that task of becoming a leader could be the best thing for him.
“I think he performs and plays better when he is challenged”, Donovan says.
When Finney-Smith is better and healthy, the team around him feeds from it. And that’s a team that Doe-Doe says is formidable.
“When everybody’s healthy, we got a deep team…it’s a hard team to beat.”
A hard team to beat, surrounding their leader underneath those flashing lights, as he continues to step up to his new role and onto the court as a starter.