When it comes to anticipation of Florida basketball there has, rightfully, been a lot of discussion regarding the return of Keyontae Johnson who will contend for a place on an All-American team. Scottie Lewis, who many expected would go pro, deciding to return to Gainesville has made him a popular name in previews. Tre Mann having what’s been referred to as a transformational offseason has also garnered a bunch of attention, as has the activation of transfers Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji who are ready to rock after mandatory redshirt seasons.
Lost in the shuffle has been one of the most consistent players of Florida’s last two seasons, Maryland product Noah Locke. Locke emerged as a reliable shot maker two seasons ago, someone who was the most capable distance shooter on the roster. He took that reputation to the next level as a sophomore, hitting a ridiculous 48% of his threes in conference play and providing spacing for his teammates as opposition quivered at the idea of leaving him open.
Locke hasn’t received a lot of the hype that his teammates have, but maybe he should.
Consistency has been a theme throughout Locke’s college career. Look at his traditional box score stats from his freshman to sophomore season.
A sleight jump, but one that is rather marginal. While the box score stats might not be drastically different, you can really see the improvement from first to second year in the percentages. As a freshman Locke shot 38% from three before making a huge leap to 43% as a sophomore. He drastically struggled from inside the arc shooting 38% from two-point range as a freshman but was able to get up to 42% in year two. That improvement in efficiency is an important part of growth, even though it won’t be as instantly apparent as point and rebound totals.
Looking at his consistency from year one to year two a fair question would be “well, if he has been rather similar from year one to year two, why should we expect a leap in year three?”
That’s a fair point, as not every player is on a drastic upward trajectory in their basketball journey. However, in Locke’s case there is a huge difference going into his junior year that could prime him for a huge leap.
Midway through his freshman season Locke suffered a hip injury. It wasn’t bad enough to sideline him as he played through the pain but it drastically hindered his abilities on the court, particularly when it came to lateral movement. In the offseason different rehab strategies were implemented but his hip was never 100% in year two either. However, after the 2019-20 season was suspended to COVID-19 the decision was made for him to get surgical intervention on the hip, a choice that by all accounts was the right one.
Locke has said he feels much better since the hip injury and thinks he will be 100% this year for the first time since early in his freshman year. He also noted on social media that he’s back to being able to dunk, something he wasn’t able to do as a sophomore.
If Locke was able to be a solid high major starter and one of the best shooters in the nation on a hobbled hip, then him fully healthy could mean he’s ready to take the jump he wasn’t able to in the past.
When it comes to what improvements Locke could make that would take his game to the next level, there are a few. As mentioned earlier, and is common knowledge to anyone who has watched Florida play, Locke is truly one of the best shooters in the country. His ability to hit shots when closely guarded was incredible as he hit 41% when contested. And if he was wide open? Goodnight. He hit 47% of his wide open threes.
We know the shooting ability is there but when it comes to the rest of his offensive arsenal there is definitely a lot to be desired. Locke has yet to become a reliable ball handler, something that has been a limiting aspect to his game so far. Mike White tried to get him going with ball screens from time to time but he was uncomfortable in those scenarios. Locke pick and rolls netted only 31% from the field, and Locke turned it over on 12% of possessions. Lacking the ball handling to navigate through traffic and without the experience of making reads and delivering passes the pick and rolls he ran were often fruitless, but with him struggling so much in those settings it’s an easy place to see where he could show improvement.
Locke’s lack of confidence as a ball handler also hurt him when it came to attacking closeouts. For obvious reasons, teams were solely focused on taking away Locke’s catch and shoot threes. This meant defenders closing out with abandon, doing absolutely whatever it took to keep him from getting off a patented three-point look. Unfortunately, Locke seldom took advantage of it. In the course of the entire season Locke was able to attack a closeout and get to the hoop a total of…4 times. Considering how many opportunities he had to attack a vulnerable defense after a wild closeout, you’d love to see that number way higher. However, Locke’s hip injury definitely would have played a role here. Without full leg strength and mobility he would have lacked a quick first step to attack with speed and as we discussed earlier he wasn’t as explosive as he could be, hindering his ability to finish at the rim. For that reason Locke rarely ventured into the paint logging only 10 shots at the rim the entire season. With it being only once in a blue moon when Locke would get to the rim and finish there is an entire world of his offensive game to be discovered now and since he’s finally healthy that opportunity could be there for him to explore. As a team the Gators struggled to get the paint touches and easy shots at the rim and if Locke has the ability to contribute in that way it would be huge for the offense that Mike White visualizes.
Lots of possible starting lineups have been thrown out by Gator fans and media alike, and many of them out there don’t include Noah Locke despite the fact that he has started in 55 games over the last two seasons. A lot of that has to do with people projecting that the Gators will go a bit bigger with Scottie Lewis, who played primarily at the “3” last season, moving to shooting guard where Locke mostly played. Others who project Tyree Appleby to start at point see Tre Mann starting alongside him at the “2.” Those are all fair opinions, but constructing starting fives isn’t all about simply putting the best five players on the floor. You need infrastructure–you need a clearly defined plan. For the Gators, a lot of that will start with Keyontae Johnson who was unanimously the team’s best player last season. He’s an elite slasher, someone who can get to the rim at will and dunk on whoever gets in his way. Mike White has always been known as someone who features his point guards, meaning whichever one of Appleby or Mann who starts at that spot will shoulder a lot of the offense and use their individual scoring ability to pressure the defense.
There is only one basketball, and it’s tough to have an offense that truly features more than two players. That means that surrounding your key cogs has to be support pieces, such as elite shooting floor spacers like Noah Locke. Yes, in a vacuum former McDonald’s All-American Tre Mann might be a better player. Five-star future pro Scottie Lewis might bring more athleticism to the table. However, you need a properly spaced floor to keep opponents from loading up against your stars and if the Gators want to get the most out of the scoring of Keyontae Johnson and the electricity of Tyree Appleby they’ll want a low maintenance floor spacer who doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective. In fact, Locke might just be at his best when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands at all and only gets it for a brief moment before rising up and shooting.
In whatever role the Gators decide to use him, Locke is going to be an important piece for this team as one of the veterans. He has now played 1836 minutes of college basketball, long enough to know a whole lot of the tricks of the trade he can pass on to younger teammates. He’s an immensely popular player among the team and staff, and he’ll be looked to as a leader. The intangibles he’ll bring to the floor are valuable, and we know his shooting will be among the nation’s best, but what else he brings to the table from a skills standpoint will define his junior season.