When Florida signed class of 2020 New Jersey product Niels Lane they were getting a player they hoped would be able to bring length and toughness to the wing, something the Gators have severely lacked in recent seasons. He was known as one of the best defenders in the region, an athletically gifted 6’5” athlete with plus length and the dogged determination to lock down his opponent.
Coaches close to Lane also lauded his offensive talent as a ball handler and playmaker, though his chance to fully showcase those abilities in high school were cruelly ripped from him due to injury and illness.
Coming into the start of the season there was a bit of a clear path to how he might carve out a role. Starting shooting guard Noah Locke is as accurate a shooter in the country, though he isn’t a ball handler and doesn’t offer plus size at the position. If Florida wanted secondary playmaking next to Tre Mann or Tyree Appleby, Lane might be the player to provide it. Scottie Lewis entered the season as the clear favorite to start at small forward, though the minutes behind him were an open competition and Lane’s ability to defend would make a lot of sense to replace the role people were expecting Lewis to fill.
Whatever the expectations were, Lane’s minutes have been erratic. His first significant look of the season came against Stetson where he played 10 minutes, though he wasn’t much more than an afterthought in the rotation except for an 8 minute outing against Vanderbilt. Some thought the Tennessee game would be a turning point, as Lane was a key piece in Florida’s blowout win playing18 minutes.
However, he played a combined 7 minutes over the next 5 games, getting not much more than a fleeting chance to come into the game and presumably see if a shot is going to fall.
Right now it’s clear that Florida’s coaching staff doesn’t quite know what they want to do with Lane, and the freshman doesn’t seem to have their trust as they have been hesitant to get him on the floor. Judging a player based on body language can be a foolish thing to do, but when the ball has found Lane offensively in his short spurts on the court, he appears to lack confidence.
For a player that has only played one or two rapid shifts per game over the last few weeks, you could understand if his confidence was at least slightly damaged. He’s currently 0-7 on the season from the three-point line, and one of his shots spilling off the rim has usually been followed closely by a substitution. Given the fact that he often doesn’t get his first look well into the first or second half, it means a long time sitting on the bench and getting cold making those coveted three-point attempts that much more difficult.
Given the fact that he hasn’t been able to offer much on the offensive end, particularly his missing of open shots, some might say it’s fair that he hasn’t been playing much.
That might be a fair argument, but at the same time, he might offer some skills the Gators could really use.
If you zoom out on Florida basketball on a whole, their problems are more on the defensive side than the offensive side. They’re currently 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, a solid number, and 49th in adjusted defensive efficiency, a much worse number.
As a reference point, last year’s team was 27th in offensive efficiency and 61st in defensive efficiency, and right now the Gators are trending towards matching that number. Mediocre to bad offensive teams like Kentucky, Mississippi State, and Arkansas have all been able to put up points at will on the Gators, handing Florida some losses they’d love to have back.
Florida is currently 63rd in the country in three-point percentage at 36%, a ranking that just dipped significantly after two rough games, so they’ve actually been very efficient from behind the arc. That is, when they choose to shoot. They’re 270th in the country in three-point attempts, meaning the three-point shot is not something they put a premium on.
One last number regarding Florida’s offense–they are 312th in the country in assisted field goals. That might sound crazy to you but it probably shouldn’t–last year they were 289th, in 2019 they were 207th, in 2018 they were 235th, and in 2017 they were 285th. Simply put, the Gators are used to not having that much playmaking out there. Chris Chiozza and Andrew Nembhard were fantastic passers, but next to them was always a catch and shoot player in KeVaughn Allen or Noah Locke who didn’t offer much playmaking or assist generation. We’re seeing that again this year, as unless the Gators roll out Tyree Appleby and Tre Mann they only have one distributor on the floor at once.
So, with all that being said, here is the point–Lane might not currently be contributing much as an offensive player, but offense isn’t the problem for the Gators. He might not offer shooting, but the Gators don’t take that many threes and have other guys that can knock them down.
Florida also lacks offensive creation and playmaking, and that is the one plus element of Lane’s offensive game that he hasn’t been able to showcase.
Do you remember how much Tre Mann struggled as a freshman last season? He, like Lane, struggled to hit shots and lacked flow offensively until the final weeks of the season when he started to put it together. While there were likely a few factors that contributed to that, one of which was the role change from high school to college. Mann was a player who always had the ball in his hands in high school and was a primary initiator. Then he came to Florida where he was tasked with being a spot up shooter, something he had never done before. Predictably, he struggled. Now, Florida is putting the ball in his hands and he’s getting to showcase his best skills.
Lane was also a player who had the ball in his hands a lot in school, playing the role of playmaking point guard. He was a distributor first who made it his sole focus to get shots for his teammates.
Now, he’s in a completely different role, spacing the floor and needing to be a catch and shoot threat. Has that worked? No, sadly. His mechanics need work, and many of his misses haven’t been close. Part of that is on Lane as a player who needs to go through the growing pains of transitioning from high school to college basketball. Many players do have to change their role, which can be difficult for a player like Lane, or like we saw with Tre Mann, who have to go from primary initiator to off the ball spacer.
If Florida is looking to get more out of Lane, giving him opportunities to handle the ball and make reads would likely get more out of him right now than putting him in the corner and tasking him with taking catch and shoot jumpers. That might require them to get out of their current offensive system that’s as pick and roll reliant as any team in the country right now, but that offense was completely shut down in the last two games by South Carolina and Arkansas who dropped pick and roll coverage to force Florida into floaters and midrange jump shots and take away any chances at ball reversals.
We’ve talked about offense, but right now what the Gators need most is defenders on the wing and that is the biggest area where Lane can contribute. Florida’s defensive struggles have all started with their inability to guard drives. Their perimeter defenses have either been too slow, too small, or two late to react to the talented drivers and players like Cam Thomas, AJ Lawson, and Scotty Pippen Jr. have had field days against them. In Florida’s blowout loss to Alabama, the Crimson Tide simply isolated repeatedly and went at Florida’s perimeter defenders one on one, knowing they could get to the rim whenever they wanted.
Tyree Appleby is a player that gives up a lot of size in the SEC, especially when he is playing shooting guard. Noah Locke, same deal, and he’s also giving up athleticism. Scottie Lewis has all the explosiveness and length you’d dream of as a perimeter defender but has never been able to put his physical gifts to full use.
Individual points per possession and field goal percentage allowed can be a flawed stat, as the nearest defender isn’t always the most responsible for a shot being taken, but it can give a good indication of how good a player is as an individual defender.
Noah Locke is giving up 0.91 points per possession, a below average mark.
Tyree Appleby is giving up 0.96 points per possession, fairly poor.
Scottie Lewis is giving up 1.03 points per possession, one of the worst among high major wings.
How about Niels Lane? Well, he’s giving up 0.44 points per possession, the lowest on the team.
Again, these numbers shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but they often match the eye test as you can see with how some of Florida’s other players are struggling. And Lane, who has only been able to play short stretches out of rhythm, has been real solid. For starters, he has good size. He’s also fairly muscular, allowing him to take the physical bumps initiated by SEC drivers. More than just his frame, he’s as disciplined as anyone on the Gators as getting into a stance, staying in it, and moving his feet quickly side to side.
Another number that caught my attention was Florida’s on/off defensive numbers with Lane. The Gators are giving up 1.06 points per possession when Lane isn’t on the floor, and 0.87 points per possession when he’s on the floor.
That isn’t the only advanced number that stuck out.
On average, 54% of Florida’s shots allowed have come at the rim. However, when Lane is on the floor that number drops to 44%. Watching the tape, you can see how having Lane on the floor has taken away a lot of opponent dribble drive opportunities, which is exactly what Florida needs right now.
To summarize–yes, right now Lane doesn’t offer a lot offensively in the role as floor spacing shooter. However, getting him on the ball more than off of it would unlock the skills he has already developed versus his catch and shoot ability that needs to be improved. But, more than anything on the offensive side, the Gators desperately need perimeter defenders that can keep the ball out of the paint and Lane might just offer that more than anyone else on Florida’s perimeter. Right now the Gators can sacrifice a bit of offense if it means they can get better defensively, and mixing Niels Lane back in the rotation could certainly do that.