Florida’s 2019 recruiting class has made big news across the college basketball landscape this past week putting the Gators front and center on ESPN, CBS Sports, and The Athletic’s college basketball coverage and they have national hoops writers declaring the team “back” (as if we ever left, come on now).
Nabbing Tre Mann, Alex Klatsky, Omar Payne, and finally Scottie Lewis was massive and the fistful of stars by their names indicates a level of talent and athleticism that is sure to translate to the SEC. Bringing in all-star potential like this group of players has is awesome, but what is the most important skill these players bring?
Maybe it’s athleticism. Lewis is the biggest name here and is possibly one of the most athletic players in the class. He can explode out of nowhere for a huge dunk and he doesn’t just use that bounce when he’s on offense as his ability to time blocks and jump with 6’10” big men has put his defensive highlights al over Instagram. The electricity that enters a building when he goes to elevate is unmatched and the anticipation you’ll feel when watching him gather his jump when he attacks the hoop will be unimaginable. Omar Payne brings a great deal of athleticism too, using quick feet for a post player to guard anyone on the floor and finishing high-arching alley-oops on the other end. Though not an eye-popping athlete, Mann is more of silky player, effortlessly gliding around the floor to find the right places to be. The athleticism of this group is instantly noticeable, there’s no question, but is it the most important factor?
What about the scoring punch? Mann will be the ringleader here, shifting defenders with a lightning-quick handle and finding space on the floor where he can pull up from the midrange or hesitate a defender into oblivion before driving to the hoop for an easy two. He’s also a smooth passer and an accurate lob-thrower, something that will benefit Omar Payne greatly as he rolls to the hoop hunting for big-time slams. Scottie Lewis can fill it up at times, but his offense seems to be a secondary skill following his rugged defensive play and hustle in the full court. This class will score, but is putting up points what they’ll be remembered for?
The defense is going to be special with this group. Omar Payne was heavily sought after because of his defense and he’ll likely be an instant replacement for the anchoring Kevarrius Hayes is known for. I talked about his ability to move his feet earlier, and his tremendous wingspan is going to lead to him launching a lot of blocked shots into the seats. Scottie Lewis also is an elite shot blocker for a player on the wing and it’s not only because he has the physical gifts, it’s because he has the sheer will to lock his man down and prevent the other team from ever getting to see the ball go through the hoop. Mann can compete defensively too, and his high hoops sense helps be in the right place at the right time on his end. The defensive acumen of this group is likely ahead of it’s offense, so will that be the biggest thing this class will bring to the Gators?
Really, the answer to me is going to be D) All Of The Above.
Versatility is something the Gators haven’t exactly been known for this past few seasons and it was particularly lacking last season, partially due to injuries but not exclusively. Florida was a talented bunch last year but due to a mix of size and skill restraints Mike White didn’t have a lot of pieces he could move around that excelled in different positions. Chris Chiozza was awesome, but you wouldn’t want him moving to the two and playing bigger guards. KeVaughn Allen thrived at the two but didn’t have the ball skills to play the one at a high level or the size to play the three. Egor Koulechov was used at the three and the four, but he lacked the perimeter defense to hang with athletic threes and didn’t always have the size to bang with fours. Kevarrius Hayes, Dontay Bassett, and Gorjok Gak were all totally limited to the five due to size or skillset limitations. Unfortunately, the Gators really didn’t have a lot of pieces to move around to different positions and use many different lineups.
When you look around college basketball the ability to have versatile players is big and when you look at the rosters of top teams, versatility is all up and down their lineups. Villanova’s positionless onslaught of Jalen Brunson, Donte DiVincenzo, Mikal Bridges, Eric Paschall, and Omari Spellman saw a starting lineup that could shift all up and down the wing and frontcourt spots, and their National Championship opponent Michigan trotted out a true point guard in Zavier Simpson and a true center in Moritz Wagner but then filled the wings with guys like Muhhamed-Ali Abdur-Raukman, Charles Matthews, Duncan Robinson, Jordan Poole, and Isaiah Livers who could all play the two through four. Lineup versatility like that makes you really tough to prepare for from a scouting standpoint as many players can do different things and it also allows you to play a lot of different lineups. The Gators were pretty locked in what they could do lineup-wise and you saw it in the way other teams countered. You’d often see teams throw atypical starting lineups at the Gators knowing they could create mismatches from the start, and then bringing in normal starters a little bit later when they knew the Gators would have someone playing out of position like Allen running the point.
Let’s bring it back to the 2019 recruiting class. They bring the versatility the Gators lacked last season, and it should really help out Coach White. Tre Mann has great size for a point guard and could definitely play the two if needed. He also doesn’t always need the ball in his hands to be effective and his ability to shoot off the dribble means he could join Andrew Nembhard in what could be a devastating two-point-guard backcourt. Scottie Lewis is comfortable at the two or the three and is a player I think you could task with guarding the other team’s best perimeter player in whatever position they play. Lewis’ diverse skillset on defense will also allow him to switch confidently onto just about anyone, and we know Coach White loves to switch defensively. Last year’s roster was not suited well to switching and saw some major changes in game plan but with Scottie Lewis on the wing the ability to switch will come a lot easier. It will also be easier with Omar Payne in the paint, a player who not only could play the four or the five but could switch onto a point guard if they try to make him defend pick and rolls.
Let’s look at the potential lineups we could see in 2019 and beyond. I already talked about how Mann could play next to Nembhard, but if you put him next to Noah Locke you have two flamethrowers from deep in the backcourt. Maybe you have Scottie Lewis next to Mann in the backcourt with Keyontae Johnson playing the three. Or, you have Scottie Lewis play the three with Chase Johnson at the four and Omar Payne at the five. Omar Payne could also bring some more athleticism to the frontcourt at the four while Stokes plays the five. Or, if Keith Stone stays for his final year he could play the four with Payne at the five.
I could do this all day, folks. There are a boatload of other combinations I haven’t even thrown out yet. The thing is, versatility isn’t as sexy as scoring punch or athleticism and when you see the Gators scoring 5-stars your first thought probably isn’t going to be “Wow! Coach White could slide him into so many possible lineup configurations!” but really, it’s important. How many games has Florida lost to Florida State these last few years, a team that just rolls out long, switchable, not-that-skilled-but-really-athletic lineups that the Gators couldn’t match up with? The Gators lost to a non-tournament Ole Miss team last year that rolled out three scoring guards the Gators couldn’t match up with, and we saw Duke, Loyola-Chicago, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas Tech beat them because the Gators didn’t have enough frontcourt versatility.
Hey, it isn’t sexy, but the versatility, and not just the stars next to their names in the recruiting rankings, might be what makes Tre Mann, Scottie Lewis, and Omar Payne the perfect class.