Late afternoon on November 12, 2016 the Donald L. Tucker Center was mostly quiet. An hour or so earlier, the Florida State men’s basketball team wrapped up an 88-67 victory over an obviously over-matched Charleston Southern team. Civic Center staff cleaned the aisle and a few friends and family waited for their loved one to emerge from the locker room. Coach Hamilton had already addressed the media and I found myself alone with a stoic-looking Xavier Rathan-Mayes.
I couldn’t tell if X—as his teammates and coaches refer to him (along with XRM)—was focused, worn out, or just content. Looking back, perhaps the description my mind was searching for was mature. In any case, we started talking. And then I started listening. And then I started to get very excited. “If this guy is willing to walk the walk in support of his talk,” I thought to myself, “Florida State might be on the verge of a special season.”
Xavier Rathan-Mayes has walked the walk.
In order to truly appreciate the maturation of XRM, we must first take a trip back in time. The year was 2012 and some Canadian phenoms were making their presence known to the entire basketball world.
XRM, born in Markham, Canada (in southern Ontario) grew up around basketball. During his formative years he played for the Canadian AAU powerhouse, CIA Bounce, whose alumni include not one but two first overall picks in the NBA draft. One of those future number 1s was Andrew Wiggins.
Wiggins, for many FSU fans, is the one who got away. A Seminole legacy, the hope was that Wiggins’ family ties and familiarity with the program would help steer him to Tallahassee. And it just so happened that XRM, also a legacy, was Wiggins’ AAU and high school teammate. While Wiggins was everyone’s top ranked recruit, X was a big-time player in his own right. Known as a combo-guard with good court vision and nearly unlimited range, Rathan-Mayes had a 55 point game his senior year and finished high school as a consensus top 35 recruit. Together, these two Canadians with garnet and gold blood were going to help their parents’ alma mater cut down some nets.
And then they weren’t. Andrew Wiggins spurned FSU for a member of the Leonard Hamilton coaching tree out in Lawrence, Kansas. Rathan-Mayes did sign with the ‘Noles, but was forced to sit out the entire 2013-14 season due to a high school scam artist and a tunnel-visioned NCAA.
By the time XRM finally laced up his shoes for the Seminoles, there was a completely different outlook for FSU and X was really the only scorer on the team. So that’s what X did. Score.
While FSU slogged its way through a largely forgettable 17-16 season, X made national headlines for his unthinkable 30 points in 4 minutes and 38 seconds explosion against Miami. Of course, often lost in the conversation of that remarkable achievement is that FSU still lost the game. And that was a familiar occurrence during X’s freshman year—he would score a lot of points, but FSU would lose a lot of games.
By the end of the year, Rathan-Mayes’ individual accomplishments were outstanding. Second leading freshmen scorer in the ACC, only behind Jahlil Okafor. FSU freshmen records for total points, points per game, field goals made, and three pointers made. Only freshmen in ACC history to have three 30+ games. The list goes on and on.
And yet, Rathan-Mayes’ offensive efficiency rating was the lowest among FSU’s players that played at least 30% of the team’s minutes. While he made a lot of threes, he also took a lot of threes. Too many for a guy who only shot 28% from that distance. His turnover rate was the second highest among FSU guards and his defense...well his defense often resembled the kind of defense played in all-star games. Close out late, watch a ball handler blow by you, reach around for a lazy steal, and hope your big guy steps up.
To put it simply, X wasn’t helping his team succeed.
The following year, FSU welcomed in two elite high school scorers in Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley. No longer the only scoring option on the team, X was asked to become more of a facilitator. And while his offensive efficiency did slightly improve (not-so-coincidentally, FSU’s record also slightly improved), it never quite seemed like a comfortable fit. You would see flashes of potential—like the 11 assist, two turnover game against Southeastern Louisiana—but there was maddening inconsistency. He was still forcing way too many threes (and still shooting 28% from deep), he was still turning the ball over too much, and he still appeared disinterested in defending the way Leonard Hamilton wants his players to defend.
After the season, there was speculation that XRM would turn pro. Instead, he came back and vowed to make changes. Starting with his defense.
“[Defense] was a big focus for me this off season,” says Rathan-Mayes. “I want to be a guy that’s considered for first team all-defense. I take pride in every single night coming out and guarding the opposing point guard, if not the best player on the team. That’s something I’ve taken pride in starting this year.”
Florida State’s defense currently ranks 26th in the country. That’s the best it’s been since the 2012 ACC Title team and more than 50 spots higher than X’s freshman year. Rathan-Mayes’ desire to put consistent pressure on the ball handler out beyond the three-point line is a big reason for the substantial improvement. Indeed, there are times out there where I don’t even recognize XRM—his defense is that much better.
Meanwhile, on the offensive end X finally looks like the lead guard Hamilton recruited him to be. His offensive efficiency, down around 97.4 two years ago, is currently at 115.2. He’s cut his turnover rate from 21.7 to 18.3. His efg% (accounts for all shots taken, weighting 3s heavier) is over 50% for the first time in his career, his assist rate is far and away the best on the team, and his three-point percentage has improved to a respectable 34%.
To what does he credit this marked improvement? Inner peace.
“I’m kind of at peace with myself now,” an introspective XRM said calmly. “I’m in a place with myself basketball wise where I haven’t been before...I’m trusting in my guys, trusting in my coaching staff, allowing them to coach me, allowing them to teach me and it’s translating over to the floor.”
Wow. That’s pretty heavy stuff for a 22 year-old. This is the same kid who grew up idolizing Kobe Bryant?
I asked him to expand on what he meant by being at peace with himself and was treated to a wonderfully candid and mature response.
“I don’t feel like I have to go out there and get 20-25 points a game,” said X. “I don’t feel like I have to force it...to keep my stats up. I know that I’m going to get my numbers within the flow of the offense. I know Coach is going to put me in position to be successful, just like he did tonight, and I know that my teammates trust me...offensively and defensively now.”
He paused for a moment, looking down in deep reflection.
“Being at peace with myself meaning, I’m okay. I don’t have to get into those moods where I feel like I gotta go hunt the basket, or I have to go do something extraordinary. I don’t feel like I have to do that stuff anymore.”
Florida State is currently 15-1, including the first 3-0 start in ACC play in school history. To put it simply, the maturity of Xavier Rathan-Mayes is a significant reason behind the success.