Mike White and his staff are finally building some momentum on the recruiting trail. The Florida Gators signed a strong class for the 2017-18 season and expect several players to make immediate impact.
With four signees, including three ESPN 100 players, added to the roster, it was Florida’s strongest class on paper since Billy Donovan brought in a pair of 5-stars in Kasey Hill and Chris Walker in 2013.
Guards Deaundrae Ballard and Mike Okauru and forwards Chase Johnson and Isaiah Stokes make up a class of gym rats. Aside from their talent, that is the thing that has impressed White the most.
“I’ve been blown away by the work ethic,” White said. “My freshman class lives in the gym. Lives in the gym. They’ve been terrific in that regard.”
Teammates have taken notice of how hard the young guys are going at it in their first year. Some said it inspires them to get in the gym more and some said it’s like they never had a freshman year and just skipped straight to sophomore year.
They don’t know everything yet, but they want to, and they want to learn from older players as much as possible.
“The freshman class loves the gym,” said redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone. “They’re gym rats, in there 24/7. I swear one of them sleeps in there. I don’t know which one. They all love the gym. They all love to workout. They ask the older guys for tips, and me for tips, and I give it to them, because they just love the game.”
The one sleeping in there is probably Ballard, at least according to White.
“I’ve never had a guy in 18 years be in the gym as much as this kid’s been in the gym since he got here in summer B,” White said of Ballard. “Relentless work ethic. Really good score. Has a lot to learn about our system, just like these other freshmen. And he’s pushing these veteran wings.”
Older players like senior guard Chris Chiozza have made it a point to take Ballard and the other freshmen under their wings. He said he has worked through many of the same problems they are facing in developing their games right now, so he tries to pass on some wisdom and tell them how to fix it before the coaches have to.
As a guy who has been around the block a few times, Chiozza sees a lot of potential for impact in all of the freshmen.
“It’s a lot of talent,” he said. “Deaundrae Ballard is an elite scorer. He’s probably one of the best scorers I’ve ever seen and he hasn’t even played in college yet. He’s a hustle player. He plays good. He plays with a lot of energy and heart. Mike’s an energy player, too. Chase is crazy athletic. You’re going to see him catch a couple of dunks. This year he’ll play a lot like Spidey [Kevarrius Hayes], he gets a lot of rebounds, he’s hard to block out. You’re going to see a lot of him. And hopefully Stokes comes back. He’s a big body, huge. But he’s got the touch of like a guard. His touch his incredible. He’s got it with both hands, just super skilled.”
At SEC Media Day on Wednesday, White continued the praise for his freshmen. He attributed much of the work ethic he’s been seeing from them to the rise of buy in during his third year with the team.
This team is finally made of a large portion of White’s players, whereas many players in his first two seasons did not choose to be on his team. These players want to play for White and be a part of the program he is building at Florida.
“The buy in is easier now because these kids signed up for this and they were recruited by myself and my staff,” White said. “They signed up to play with these teammates, as opposed to two years ago where it was, ‘Hey, I didn’t sign up for this. I signed up to play for Coach Donovan.’ And I understood that, and it took time to develop those relationships, of course. It’s different now. It’s a little bit easier. My freshmen have a ways to go, but they’re doing everything we’re asking them to do.”