Make no mistake about it, 2019-20 was a disappointing season for the Gators where they fell short of expectations.
Perhaps what made it sting even more was the fact that the 2018-19 season that preceded it was disappointing on it’s own, with the Gators only barely sneaking into the NCAA Tournament. There were multiple contributing factors that led to two consecutive seasons of frustration but there is one that doesn’t seem to get the same amount of attention as the others.
The lost 2017 recruiting class.
As much as young 5-star one and done freshmen get a load of attention in college basketball they don’t often contribute to winning as much as they’re expected to. College basketball is largely dominated by returning talent, so if you’re going to look at what teams you expect to be good you often look at sophomores, juniors, and seniors–not freshmen.
How does that relate to the last two Florida seasons? Well, the 2017 recruiting class, one that came in with a lot of promise, ended up giving the Gators near negligible amounts of production. Last season should have been the class’ junior season where their skill would match their experience and everything should have come together but that wasn’t the case. They had all moved on to different programs, transferring at various points after realizing that things at Florida simply weren’t going to work out.
This class was made up of:
6’8”, 205 Pounds
6’5”, 170 Pounds
6’8”, 275 Pounds
6’3”, 180 Pounds
Overall the class was ranked 20th in the country, which to Florida fans was a sigh of relief due to their recent coaching hire of Mike White. After getting hired from Louisiana Tech a year prior he wasn’t able to get a full cycle of recruiting in so the 2017 class was his first opportunity to show he could bring talent to Gainesville. By bringing in the 20th ranked class so early in his tenure he established that he had some juice as a recruiter and could get talent to believe in him.
What made this class look even more special was the way their roles seemed to make sense without any crossover in skill set between the quartet. Michael Okauru was a traditional lead guard with size, expected to be a long-term ball handler. DeAundrae Ballard was a wing with size, something that was at a premium with the way modern basketball had begun to be played. Chase Johnson was the perfect stretch four, an athletic 6’8” with fantastic shooting touch. Isaiah Stokes was a traditional back to the basket five man. You didn’t have to squint to see how these players fit together as a natural point guard, wing, stretch four, and center, and it looked for a time like this was one day going to be four pieces of Florida’s starting lineup.
You know, when they’d be experienced juniors…like what would have been last season.
Unfortunately, that was far from the case. It wasn’t long after the 2018-19 season ended that every player was gone, transferring around the country to find new homes. And the Gators were left with an empty cupboard, a gap where the coaching staff thought there was a perfect complement of players to build the program in their upperclassmen years.
This left the 2019-20 Gators as the third youngest high major team in the country. They only had two upperclassmen see the floor for them, one being graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear and the other being class of 2016 big Dontay Bassett who was used sparingly, when his health and the score of the game aligned properly to do so.
There were plenty of things that went wrong and contributed to Florida’s disappointing season but losing out on an entire class, a four player one at that, and a 20th ranked one at that, is a devastating blow when it comes to building a program. What happened to these players? A brief update:
Michael Okauru transferred to UNC-Wilmington and was granted immediate eligibility. He had a solid junior season averaging 9.2 points, 2.7 assists, and 5.6 rebounds. It never came together for him at Florida but at his new home he showed what White and his staff first saw in him, a physical guard who can knife to the rim and score over smaller players. Of course, it is worth noting with those numbers and his role that UNC-Wilmington plays in a low major Colonial League, and Florida to low major transfers aren’t something you love to see.
DeAundrae Ballard goes down as the player who ended up playing the most minutes for Florida with 658 over two seasons. He greatly struggled offensively for the Gators and had a knack for taking difficult, low efficiency shots which ended up keeping him on the bench and ultimately his decision to leave which surely wasn’t met with great resistance from Florida’s staff. He transferred to South Alabama where he first redshirted in accordance with NCAA rule. His first game with the Jaguars was this past week (against Florida Atlantic, coached by former Gator assistant Dusty May), and he was a “Did Not Play-Coach’s Decision” on the box score.
A former Florida commit in his fourth year of college basketball who wasn’t able to get on the floor for South Alabama.
Isaiah Stokes was able to transfer back to his hometown to play for Penny Hardaway at Memphis. He spent last season redshirting, and unfortunately he won’t be seeing the floor this season either. Hardaway announced he was suspended for the season and won’t be around the team.
Chase Johnson went to Dayton where he got to contribute to one of the best teams in college basketball alongside Obi Toppin and Jalen Crutcher. Unfortunately, the same concussion problems that plagued him at Florida reared their ugly head again and he wasn’t able play for two-thirds of the season as he looks to one day get totally healthy.
Four players that entered Gainesville with a lot of promise and four very different paths.
What can we learn from the lost 2017 recruiting class?
One of the biggest things to take away has been alluded by Mike White on many occasions. He has admitted that his coaching staff came to Florida and started recruiting “to the rankings” and not as much to what they really thought was going to fit their roster. Fan and administration to recruit to rankings is there, especially for a new coach, and it’s easy to see why the Gators fell victim to this. As a new staff bringing in four 4-star players and a top-20 class was a sell to the administration, fan base, and media that they could recruit, and they definitely won the PR battle that year.
However, recruiting rankings are often off, particularly when it gets to the murky waters of the 100-150 ranked players as you can see if you look at the historical misses by recruiting services in that area. Look, Isaiah Stokes never came close to showing he was comfortable on a high major floor and DeAundrae Ballard wasn’t able to command minutes in a South Alabama vs. FAU game. To further show just why recruiting rankings aren’t gospel, it looks like the best player of the bunch is Michael Okauru who was clearly the lowest rated player.
The misevaluation of these players also shows just how tough it can be to evaluate talent and oftentimes you really don’t know what you have in a player until he’s on campus.
For example, Ballard was a player who scored a ton, and I mean a TON of points in high school. However, he played in a weak league where he physically overmatched a lot of players for easy buckets. That’s a difficult evaluation setting, and it looks like the Gators were wrong, though they’re far from the first coaching staff to make that same mistake. Looking back at Ballard’s tape from high school you can see glimmers into why he wasn’t cut out to be a high major player. As much as he had good size and played tough, he was stiff as an athlete and around the rim he was loading up, exploding…and laying in a lot of balls that you would hope he would dunk if he was really going to be effective as a slasher.
Let’s look at another situation. How often do you hear people say “stats don’t matter, winning matters.” Everyone wants an unselfish player who values team success over personal success, right? Well, that was Michael Okauru. He played for Brewster Academy and in his senior season they were one of the best teams in the country, and Okauru led the way as the point guard. He didn’t put up huge stats because he was unselfish and shared the basketball and then gave everything he had on the defensive end. He made winning play after winning play, even though it didn’t always show up in the box score and that ultimately contributed to where he was ranked by recruiting analysts.
Unselfish, winning plays. Everything a coach wants to see. However, Okauru also didn’t work out at Florida which again shows just how difficult evaluation is.
When it comes to Isaiah Stokes there is definitely reason to know it was likely he wasn’t going to work out at Florida. For the record, there are some reported character concerns about Stokes during his time at Florida as well as at Memphis, where he’s currently suspended. That can certainly be discussed, but not here. From a pure basketball standpoint, the stars were going to have to align perfectly for him to be a capable high major talent.
Stokes’ number one skill was the ability to score on post ups. However, at 6’8” he was going to be shorter than most players he was going to try to score against which meant he was going to need to be one of the most skilled post players in the country to make up for the lack of length. Already a big hurdle to jump for him to be effective. Oh, and with the use of analytics now we know how few post up players are truly efficient and should be utilized, so he would have needed to be in the 10th percentile nationally as a post up player to make those possessions even worth it. Then you add in that at 275 pounds (of which he was likely heavier) without the length to block shots he was going to be a defensive liability and was going to need to be even better offensively to offset that.
There were going to have to be so, so many things to go right for Stokes just to be an capable high major rotation player, and that should have probably should have kept Florida’s staff from recruiting him in the first place. Look around college basketball right now and think hard about how many 6’8” below the rim 275 pound centers there are. You are not going to find many, especially in the high major ranks. For Stokes to have been effective would have meant him going against every trend in basketball, and the staff hopefully learned the lesson of looking at the way the game is now played and only targeting players that really fit that mold.
Of course, not everything was a miss from Florida’s coaching staff and not everything is a lesson to be learned from. Sometimes there is just good, old-fashioned bad luck. In the case of Chase Johnson, it was just that. When he came to Florida all the reports of him in practice were that he looked incredible. In short game action, he looked comfortable.
Then the head injuries came, and he could never really shake it. Then he went to Dayton, where he was hardly able to play but when he did he proved his skill as a player and how perfect he is for the modern game. Sadly, more head injuries kept him from the court.
It looks like Johnson was going to be a fantastic player for the Gators if not for concussions and the staff doesn’t deserve any criticism for him not panning out. Unfortunately, it was just bad luck piling on top of bad luck of his fellow classmates not working out.
The legend of Florida’s lost 2017 recruiting class might not ever be one of the biggest storylines surrounding this team or Mike White’s tenure but it’s a reminder of just how hard recruiting is and how despite what recruiting rankings or film or what high school coaches say, you often don’t know what kind of players you have until they’re on campus. Losing this class made the cupboards bare the last two seasons but Florida’s program is on the other side of it with replenished talent and the experience you need to win in modern basketball. If the Gators are to have success in this or upcoming seasons, you can look back at what they overcame with the lost 2017 class.