Florida adding two elite perimeter players to their roster via the 2019 recruiting class in Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann fills the holes left by the graduation of KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson but how are the Gators going to replace the play of Kevarrius Hayes? Providing 25 minutes per game and anchoring the defense that was the calling card of the Gators last season the departure of Hayes leaves a gaping hole that currently doesn’t have a clearly defined replacement.
What makes the problem of replacing Hayes’ minutes at the center position so interesting is that the question of who will replace him isn’t due to a lack of bodies. Dontay Bassett, Isaiah Stokes, and Gorjok Gak will all be returning and the 2019 recruiting class sees two big men in Omar Payne and Jason Jitoboh coming to Gainesville. While some people squint and see a couple of these players playing some power forward in the future I personally see this entire group of players as guys better suited at the 5 than the 4 and that makes for a whole lot of potential centers but no clearly defined starter.
Of course, we can’t have this discussion without talking about the possibility of a graduate transfer with the Gators’ final open scholarship and let’s be real, we’re all hoping for Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear. He would obviously be the starting center in the event of him choosing Florida and would more than cover the void left by Hayes. If the Gators miss on Blackshear or he decides not to return to college at all the team might still look at one of the other available grad transfer bigs but there definitely isn’t anyone close to Blackshear available on the market.
With or without a grad transfer center the Gators are going to have to find a way to make up for the loss of Hayes. What parts of the game do they need to replace? Let’s take a look.
Hayes was one of the best shot blockers in the country with a 9.1% block rate, good for 33rd in the country and 15th amongst power five players. Not only was he good at getting his hands on the ball but he did well at altering shots even when he couldn’t get the block only allowing 38.7% at the rim, a remarkable number considering the national average at the rim is around 53%. Protecting the rim and not allowing easy buckets inside is one of the cornerstones of defense and I don’t think the impact that Hayes had as a shot blocker can be undersold. His blocked shots took points off the board for the opposing team and the Gators could be plenty aggressive on the perimeter knowing that they had Hayes behind them to clean up any mistakes.
Gorjok Gak was a strong rim protector in 2017-18 allowing 37.5% at the rim, a percentage even better than Hayes’. His ginormous wingspan certainly helps him intimidate at the rim and the great rim protection numbers he showed 2 years ago should suggest that this season when fully healthy he should be solid at the rim. While his percentage allowed is even better than Hayes’ it should be noted that Hayes’ foot speed allowed him to get to a lot of shots that not many other centers could get to. Not only was Hayes’ percentage allowed really solid, he contested a lot of them, 82 shots in the paint to be exact. While Gak was solid at contesting shots when he was in the area he’ll have some work to do on his foot speed to get to the point where he can get to more shots and be a better help side defender.
Here are where things get a bit more concerning. Dontay Bassett is the center returning with the most minutes played and he allowed 66.7% at the rim, not a number you would like to see. He isn’t particularly long or bouncy and that doesn’t help from a rim protection standpoint, but I will point out that he used taking charges as a way to protect the rim. Instead of trying to jump with opposing player he would often plant his feet and take charges from out of control drivers and that made for some big defensive plays. Those drawn charges were tremendous but he’ll still need to work on being a rim protector when he does need to move his feet and jump.
And then you’ve got Isaiah Stokes. His percentage allowed at the rim? 100%. Okay, that number is a bit misleading. He actually only contested 2 shots at the rim and both of them happened to go in, so I don’t see that 100% as a problem. What I do see as a problem is the fact that in the 185 minutes he played last season he only contested 2 shots at the rim. He wasn’t able to rotate over and get to a lot of shots and because he doesn’t have a great burst or a massive leap he isn’t able to recover if he gets to a play late. An offseason of work should get Stokes in better shape to move his feet and get to more shots but I do not predict him being a very good rim protector this season.
Omar Payne has shown some defensive upside at Montverde and has some good length while Jason Jitoboh has the shear size to wall off the paint and while their role in the upcoming season is unclear if they get into the game and can make an impact with their defense at the hoop they could find a niche.
There was an idea out there amongst a lot of Gator fans that Kevarrius Hayes was just getting bullied down low by post players but the numbers don’t suggest that’s actually true. He allowed 47.9% on post-ups which puts him in the 39th percentile of college basketball. Certainly not amazing, but not terrible. While the post-up isn’t a major part of basketball there are a lot of post-up threats in the SEC and the Gators are going to need centers who can guard one-on-one down on the block. Dontay Bassett actually defended a lot of post-ups and did really well only allowing 35%. He always did a good job of not gambling or biting on any of the fakes by the offensive player, instead staying on his feet and forcing a shot over the top. It’s a conservative way to play post defense but it’s a philosophy I personally ascribe to.
Isaiah Stokes allowed 50% on the inside and struggled with faster post players he could beat him to his outside foot on drop-step moves. As a redshirt-freshman I think he was still getting to understand how to guard high-level post players and I hope he can get a bit better with experience.
Florida was not a good rebounding team and while Hayes struggled at times on the defensive glass he was a magnificent offensive rebounder who generated a lot of extra possessions for the Gators. Hayes got offensive rebounds on 13.1% of Gator misses and somewhat surprisingly to me Dontay Bassett wasn’t too far behind at 11.1%. Lacking the length and jumping ability of Hayes to tip back misses, Bassett used his nose for the ball and desire to box out physically to carve out room and corral misses.
Here’s the big problem—Florida was a terrible defensive rebounding team last season and Hayes was their second best defensive rebounder (Keyontae Johnson was far and away the best).
Hayes’ defensive rebounding percentage was 16.8% which isn’t terrible but certainly isn’t elite. Unfortunately, Bassett’s was 13% and Isaiah Stokes’ was 10.4% so there is definitely some cause for concern when it comes to securing the defensive glass.
But what about the return of Gak, he should be a great rebounding with his length, right?
Well, he had a 16.4% defensive rebounding rate in 2017-18 so you definitely can’t predict him being definitively better than Hayes. If one of the centers wants to differentiate himself from the pack next season becoming an elite defensive rebounder would be a great place to start. Rebounding was such an issue last year that I think if anyone established themselves as clearly the best defensive rebounder they could command minutes and that could definitely factor into the decision of who is going to start.
Turnover issues did trouble Hayes from time to time but don’t let that overshadow all the good things he did do offensively. While his scoring was limited there was two areas he was tremendous from and that’s the pick and roll and on post-ups. As a roll man he converted on an absurd 74.4% of his attempts, and on post-ups he shot a surprising 59.5%.
When it comes to playing the roll man there’s actually some good news. Bassett (58.8%), Stokes (77.8%), and Gak (71.4% in 2017-18) have all had success when being used in pick and roll and that should be some reason for optimism when it comes to filling in for Hayes.
When it comes to post-ups Gak shot a nice percentage on a very small amount of attempts (3-5 for 60%) and Dontay Bassett wasn’t particularly skilled at finishing coming in at 37.5%. Stokes has been branded as a guy who can score in the post but unfortunately that has yet to be realized as he went for 35.7% on post ups.
Hayes’ impact on the offensive end wasn’t anything close to his impact on the defensive end but he did provide some scoring that will need to be covered and while it looks like there are a few options to step into the pick and roll job Florida will need someone to improve on their ability to score on the block to make the offense more multidimensional.
I know the grad transfer route is something we’re all looking to as a way to bring in a player to save the day but right now I think you’ve got to look at who the Gators have on campus to project what they’ll do with the center spot and right now there are a few reasons for optimism but also a few reasons for concern. There will be a considerable drop off in defensive ability from Hayes to whoever steps in to take a bulk of the minutes and for a team that is built on it’s defense that could be a problem. Whoever solidifies themself as the most reliable defender and rebounder could win the starting job and the way I see it, the race is wide open.