Just a couple of days ago, Joakim Noah decided he needed to welcome freshman guard Brandon Powell to the big leagues. Powell is an outstanding talent, best known for his defensive lockdowns on the perimeter but Noah felt the young guy needed to understand that this isn’t high school anymore.
“He said the other day that he was a cat and everybody around him were mice,” said Noah with a laugh Wednesday afternoon. “But the other day I caught him at the top of the key and crossed him.
“I’m not a mouse. I’m a big rat and the cat got scared and he was confused because he’s never seen a big rat like that in his life. So the cat left the big rat alone. He had a lot of pride in his defense a couple of days ago so I had to show him a little something at the top of the key. I told him ‘There’s not a lot of 6-11 guys that are going to do you like that young cat … you kitten!’ I called him a kitten. I think that will stick.”
Powell, who was being interviewed just a few feet away, couldn’t stop giggling when he heard Noah describe what had happened in practice. There is a close bond developing between all the freshmen and Florida’s upperclassmen. The freshmen are learning the ropes, trying to figure out their supportive roles on a team that won the NCAA championship back in April and returns all five starters and its first two players off the bench.
Noah and the upperclassmen are doing their part to mentor the young guys and bring them along at a good pace. Noah likes the talent that he sees and believes that the freshmen have a chance to make big contributions.
“I think all the freshmen will help us this year,” said Noah, who said it’s important for the newbies to “stay humble and hungry” on a team that he says “has the right mindset right now.”
The Gators made the run through the NCAA Tournament with a nine-man rotation. Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green were the starters with Chris Richard and Adrian Moss the backups in the front court and Walter Hodge and David Huertas the back court reserves. Huertas (transfer to Ole Miss) and Moss (graduated) are gone but their places in the rotation will be taken by Powell, Dan Werner, Jonathon Mitchell and Marreese Speights.
After a few days of practice, Noah can see that the returning players did their part in the offseason to improve their games. Add four talented freshmen that want to do their part into the mix and it’s a good situation for the Gators.
“Walter is the most improved guy on the team and Chris Richard is in that category, too,” said Noah. “I feel like everybody got better. Yesterday, we were playing the freshmen and Taurean against the older guys and they beat us two out of four games. This team is equal. This team is ready to go. We’re so deep.”
Hodge’s improvement is critical since he will be expected to carry some of the load at the point this year. Last year, the Gators were fortunate that during the run to the championship Green never got into foul trouble since the backup point guards were Hodge, an inexperienced freshman, and Humphrey, much more comfortable as a shooter than a ball handler.
Coach Billy Donovan made sure that Hodge’s minutes at the point were limited since he was a freshman and primarily a shooting guard at the time.
“It was just too much to ask of a freshman to learn two positions,” said Donovan, who added that he’s much more comfortable with Hodge spelling Green at the point this year due to the offseason improvement.
Noah said that Hodge’s improvement has plenty to do with an improved level of confidence.
“[He has] more confidence in handling the point which will definitely be good for Taurean,” said Noah. “Taurean doesn’t need that whole load on him. If he needs a breather he needs to know he can come out and know that Walter can come in and do a good job.”
When the Gators scrimmaged Tuesday, Green and Hodge had 16 assists and just one turnover between them.
“That shows those guys are ready to go,” said Noah, who noted that Hodge had a solid freshman year coming off the bench but more will be expected of him just like more was expected of Green last year, who made a quantum leap from his freshman to sophomore year.
“He [Hodge] had a solid season but that freshman to sophomore leap all of us can tell you about it,” said Noah. “It’s a big leap. I feel like he can have a great season. I feel that way about everybody.”
In practice, Noah, Horford and Richard have taken 6-10 freshman Marreese Speights under their wings. Richard is a senior while Noah and Horford are juniors and both are expected to leave early for the NBA after this season. So, they’re doing what they can to bring Speights along quickly.
“Marreese is going to be a good player,” said Noah. “He still has a long way to go but I think he’s going to be very tough. People are going to sleep on him because when we come out they’re going to think ‘Okay we’ve got the freshman in the game.’ They don’t realize that he’s battling against some of the best bigs in the SEC every day … battling them and he’s already a great talent offensively. I feel like he’s got a lot to learn but the tools are there. It’s the little things like screening and little things like that. When he gets all that, he’s going to be a top SEC player, maybe an All-American. He’s got the potential to be an All-American.”
But for now, nobody on the team is concerned with All-American status. They’re just working hard in practice, readying for a season opener November 10 with Samford. Noah says the goal for everybody on the team is to work hard and improve every day as a team.
“Everybody is really getting better and everybody is competitive,” he said. “As long as we keep that we’re still going to be the toughest team in the league.”