Point guards are often the quarterback and leader of their basketball teams, and for Florida that has definitely been the case in the Mike White era. Whether it was Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza, Andrew Nembhard, or Tre Mann, Florida’s starting point has gotten heavy usage with the ball in their hands. Last year it was especially apparent with the Gators being one of the most point guard pick and roll heavy offenses in the country, though it was only a slight step up in usage from previous seasons.
For that reason, fifth year lead guard Tyree Appleby is someone who is primed to have a huge role with the Gators–and one that is arguably the most important. First of all, we know how important the point guard has been to Florida offensively as a team that likes to have the ball in their lead guard’s hand. Defensively, Coach White has also been demanding of his point guards, imploring them to pressure the basketball and be physical at the point of attack.
Additionally–Appleby is pretty much the unquestioned starter, without much of a push behind him. Transfer Brandon McKissic played some point at UMKC but he isn’t a high level passer and is best off the ball where he can catch and shoot–something he does at a high level. Past that…there isn’t much there from a ball handling, offense initiating point guard. Sophomore Niels Lane played some point in high school and has ball handling skills, though it’s still to be determined if Coach White sees the 6’5” guard in that kind of role or as more of a wing. As is the case with freshman Kowacie Reeves who has a great handle, but is likely much better off on the wing.
So, Appleby is an unquestioned starter at Florida, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Heading into his fifth year of college basketball, Appleby is loaded with experience. Back at Cleveland State, it only took him 8 games before he took over a starting role, one he career on through his sophomore year where he was one of the highest-usage players in the country. Fast forward to last season at Florida, and after only 7 games he commanded a starting position and never looked back. Add it all up and you’ve got a player with 71 starts under his belt and 2471 minutes played, an incredible number for a player through three seasons.
Overall, his first season in Gainesville was a solid one. Here were his 2020-21 numbers, stats that I’ll point out were very similar to what I predicted preseason (shameless plug):
82.9% Free Throw
While his numbers were pretty good, it should be viewed through the context of what his role was for the Gators, and that was often a secondary ball handler who played second fiddle to future NBA first rounder Tre Mann. It’s important to note this, because it was very different from the role Appleby played at Cleveland State. Playing for the Vikings, he was a pick and roll maestro. He had the 12th best assist rate in the entire country, a playmaker who spoon fed teammates (many of which were not talented scorers) easy buckets. He was also a 39% three-point shooter, with nearly all of his attempts coming off the dribble.
At Florida, things were flipped. Yes, he had some chances to run pick and roll, but it was usually after Tre Mann got his chance to operate. His three-point attempts went from off the dribble to off the catch, shots he wasn’t as comfortable with–leading to a decline in three-point percentage.
Looking towards this season, he’ll be back to an undisputed lead guard role. This could mean big things for Appleby, and if you’re banking on what Gator could explode for a breakout season–Appleby is a great choice. There was nothing wrong at all with his 2020-21 campaign, and it’s worth noting that he was a solid player in a role that he wasn’t even perfectly suited for. Now that he’s back to his ideal role, the Gators could find themselves getting a lot more out of Appleby.
How might things look with Appleby leading the offense? For starters, let’s look at pace, which has been a hot topic around Florida basketball for the last couple of years. According to analytics software Pivot Analysis, no individual player made as much of an impact on pace of play when on the floor versus off it as Tyree Appleby, who had the Gators playing 22% faster when he was on the court versus on the bench. That is a significant jump in pace, one that matches the eye test. Appleby is the kind of ball handler that seems to be able to run just as fast with the rock as without it, and he was more than willing to ratchet up the tempo and try to get looks in transition.
Considering that Mike White has always wanted to play fast…he might finally be able to do it. Shots in transition are always more efficient than shots in the half court, and any time that Appleby can get the Gators a look on the run, it’s going to be a good shot.
After shooting 39% from three on over six attempts per game at Cleveland State, expectations for Appleby as a shooter were high. He ended up being an above average shooter at 34.9%, but there are numbers that would suggest he’ll shoot better this season. He actually shot 37% in SEC play, and it was a cold start to Appleby’s season that dropped his overall three-point percentage. His 37% from three in SEC play, against Florida’s best opponents, is encouraging moving forward.
Full time point guard minutes for Appleby also mean his playmaking ability and vision we saw at Cleveland State will finally be on display. As mentioned earlier, as a sophomore he had the 12th highest assist rate in the country, a truly ridiculous number for a player who didn’t have many talented finishers around him. Last year Appleby still managed to have the 339th highest assist rate in the country, an awfully impressive number for someone who was playing a secondary ball handling role.
Something that Appleby was sneakily excellent at was getting to the foul line, boasting the 90th best free throw rate in the country. His ability to change speeds and his slippery handle meant that defensive players were often off balance trying to corral him which meant a lot of grabbing and slapping, sending Appleby to the line where he was an excellent free throw shooter. Florida hasn’t been a team that has gotten to the charity stripe much recently, largely in part to having guards who were much more comfortable on the perimeter than the inside. Appleby loves to knife to the rim and draw contact, something that will make for some easy points this upcoming season. His ability to draw fouls also makes up for the fact that he isn’t a great finisher inside, and the efficiency to which he gets to the line and converts makes up for some missed layups on the inside when he is taking a pounding from bigger SEC post players.
An area Appleby will have to improve is turnovers, something that was a bit of a problem for him last season. Appleby often got in trouble with turnovers late in shot clocks when he was forced to try to create shots out of nothing. While his total number of turnovers was a bit disappointing, it wasn’t like they were him making bad reads or lazy passes as a primary ball handler. At Cleveland State his turnover percentage was actually extremely low for such a high usage guard, so he has proven he can be responsible with the ball and hopefully that’s the case now that he’s back to a lead guard position.
For undersized Appleby, defense is also always going to be a question mark for him, though it isn’t for a lack of effort or technical understanding. Appleby was a sound positional defender when in help side scenarios, and he was a dogged on ball defender who got into the jersey of his check. However, as a smaller guard he was often in touch matchups against bigger defenders, especially given his off ball role playing next to Mann last season. Now that he’s back to playing point guard he should have more matchups with players closer to his size which will help him out greatly.
One thing he did do well last year on the defensive end was get steals, many of which were on plays that turned into electrifying dunks on the other end for his teammates. His ability to come away with steals speaks to his intuition and determination on defense, and you always know he is going to compete on that end.
Speaking of competing, it should be remembered that many of Appleby’s best performances last season came when he was in the toughest matchups against Florida’s toughest competition. In two tough losses to Tennessee, he was one of the best players on the floor with 19 and 14 points. Against talented Alabama and Arkansas teams who had their way with Florida, Appleby was one of the few players to win their matchup coming away with 18 and 16 points in those games. Appleby was the opposite of an empty calories player, he was someone who played his best basketball against Florida’s best opponents, and that’s something that should speak loudly to his character as a basketball player.
Tyree Appleby isn’t going to go into the 2021-22 season as Florida’s most heralded player, and he’ll likely be underrated on the SEC and national landscape. However, if you’re looking for someone who could break out and surprise, completely raising the ceiling of Florida basketball, it could very well be Tyree Appleby.