It’s evolutionary! Scottie’s game has transformed

The personal transformation that Billy Donovan says is as great as he’s ever seen in one of his players is one of the year’s best feel good stories. Scottie Wilbekin deserves all the credit in the world for taking charge of his own life and going from an immature kid into a grown man over the span of a summer. His evolution from a defensive pit bull that Donovan could sic on anything from a quick point guard to a small forward to the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and a cold-blooded assassin when he has the ball in his hands as the shot clock winds down, hasn’t been the result of an epiphany moment when Wilbekin had to decide how important it was to be a Florida Gator, but it’s a compelling story just the same.

As a 17-year-old freshman, Wilbekin’s ticket off the bench and into games was his willingness to defend anyone. During the course of the season, Wilbekin earned a reputation as a hard-nosed defender who wouldn’t back down from anyone whether it was Vanderbilt’s 6-8 small forward Jeffery Taylor or Kentucky’s freshman All-American point guard Brandon Knight. He only took 89 shots in 37 games that year, 45 of them from the 3-point line and most of them were bricks but the Gators had five guys who averaged double figures including SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons and Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, two of the top five scorers in school history.

Not much changed as a sophomore. Wilbekin was still the hard nosed defensive specialist but thanks to the additions of Mike Rosario and Bradley Beal to the offense, there were fewer shots to be had. There was modest improvement in the scoring – 2.6 points per game, up from 2.4 as a freshman – but even with limited attempts from the field (76 altogether, 46 from the 3-point line) there was tremendous improvement in his shooting. Wilbekin went from 28.3% from the 3-point line as a freshman to 45.7% as a sophomore.

Donovan says Wilbekin’s offensive came around slowly because there were just so many scorers and so many shots to be had.

“I think the hardest thing for Scottie his first two years which probably maybe hurt his development a little bit was he just kind of came in because we had so much offense in the backcourt with Beal and Boynton and Rosario and even (Erik) Murphy stepping away,” Donovan said at his Monday press conference before the Gators (34-2) began practice for their Thursday NCAA Sweet 16 game with UCLA (9:45 p.m., CBS) in Memphis.  “We never really needed his shooting.  What we did need was his defense, and his freshman year he came off the bench, played about 18 minutes a game and gave us great minutes.  But a lot of times the ball wasn’t in his hands a lot. It was in other guys’ hands a lot.  Same thing could be said his sophomore year, although he played more.”

As a freshman and sophomore, Wilbekin occasionally played the point but the first two options were Walker and Boynton. That changed as a junior. Wilbekin started at the point last season, played his usual stout brand of defense (All-SEC Defensive team) while leading the team in assists and averaging 9.1 points per game on a team that featured Rosario, Boynton and Murphy as the primary scoring options. As a starter and the primary ball handler, he got more shots even though he wasn’t the first scoring option.

“I think last year going into being a point guard and really kind of having more responsibility, there was a lot of growth that he had to make, and there was a lot of things he needed to learn,” Donovan said.

As a senior, Wilbekin’s game – just like his life – has matured. He remains the reliable defender who Donovan says is the best on the perimeter in the country, an assertion that is backed up by numerous analysts who rave about his ability to put the clamps on a scorer. Without Boynton, Rosario and Murphy, he has become Florida’s most reliable scoring option. He averages 13.1 points per game and hits nearly 40% (39.7) of his 3-pointers.

With the game on the line or the shot clock winding down to zero, Wilbekin is the Gator most likely to take the shot. Against Pitt in Saturday’s NCAA third round game at Orlando’s Amway Arena, Florida called time out with 5.0 seconds left in the first half and set up a play during a time out. Wilbekin took the inbounds pass, blew by three Pitt defenders and launched a running 27-foot 3-pointer that extended Florida’s lead to five (27-22) at the half.

In the second half, Wilbekin scored 13 of Florida’s final 19 points as the Gators pulled away from Pittsburgh for a 61-45 win that punched their ticket to Memphis. Although the casual fan was asking where did that come from after Wilbekin’s sensational 21-point performance, it was just another example of how he does whatever the team needs to get a win. If the Gators need shooting, he gives them production. If the driving lanes are open, he’s not afraid to take the ball into the paint where he can either score or dump it off to one of the Gators’ big men.

Donovan thinks that Wilbekin might have matured as an offensive player sooner if there had been a need. Certainly, Wilbekin has shown constant improvement.

“I think Scottie has always been a good offensive player, it’s just maybe some other guys offensively were on a different level than he was at,” Donovan said. “But he’s gotten better over the course of the last two years of doing everything, understanding how to play in pick‑and‑roll, making decisions, getting guys shots, having an awareness of where players are on the court.”

And, of course, he still plays defense.

“His defense has always been the same,” Donovan said.  “He’s always been accountable there. He does a great job, but he’s really evolved, I think, as a complete guard maybe from where he was his first two years.”

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.