Thomas University is a solid NAIA club with some nice athletes. And those kids played with tremendous energy and hustle. But let’s get one thing established: the Night Hawks had zero chance of defending FSU in the paint or attacking the rim. Zero chance.
Because of the complete mismatch, it’s not wise to make any definitive conclusions based on this game. However, we still can take away some big picture thoughts from Florida State’s final exhibition match-up for the season tips off.
The Seminoles came out aggressively on both offense and defense. CJ Walker picked his man up 90 feet from the basket after FSU’s very first made shot. Throughout the game, guards routinely extended the defense out to 35 feet in half court sets and there was even some occasional press D employed by Leonard Hamilton. Combined with active hands and extended arms, this high pressure defense forced turnovers on an astounding 44% of their first half possessions. After the game, Coach Ham talked about his desire to apply three-quarter or even some full-court pressure more frequently this season, so that will certainly be something to watch.
On offense, FSU was aggressive both in pace of play and attacking the basket. Pushing the ball up the court even on made shots, FSU averaged a lightning fast 12 seconds per offensive possession. For reference, FSU led the ACC last season with 15.3 seconds per offensive possession. This pace not only allows FSU to take advantage of its biggest asset—depth—it also let’s the Seminole athletes get out in transition to create easy buckets.
For the second game in a row, Florida State displayed improved perimeter shooting compared to last year. Guys are clearly being encouraged to take more threes, with Terance Mann stepping into and making a three on the game’s opening possession. We all knew that PJ Savoy and Braian Angola can fill it up from long distance, but the entire team seems to be improved in this area. Even guys like Mfiondu Kabengele and Raiquon Gray seem quite comfortable and confident out to 23 feet. (Gray appears to have an outstanding all-around shooting touch).
Improved 3-point shooting would be significant for two reasons. First, other than open layups/dunks, threes are the best shot in basketball in terms of value per shot. Second, it would force defenses to spread out and defend more of the court, which will only make it easier for guys like Mann, MJ Walker, CJ Walker, and others to attack the basket.
This team talks. A lot. And that’s a really good thing. I haven’t heard that many ball screens, cutters, etc. called out by help defenders since 2011 and 2012 seasons. Now, don’t get me wrong—the defense is still a work in progress. But the willingness to communicate and help each other out will be huge as the games get more contested.
After the game, Hamilton and CJ Walker both discussed how much of a priority the increased communication has been. CJ spoke about his memories last year of sometimes being scared, as a freshman, of making the wrong read or asking a silly question, and how hearing things called out by teammates over and over again speeds up the learning curve. He said the experienced players this year have really been intentional about helping the freshman get out of their comfort zone a little bit and encouraging them to speak up.
Last year brought about the Boom Squad and that unselfish spirit has absolutely transferred over to this season. The team just so obviously and genuinely likes one another. Credit the coaching staff for identifying recruits who don’t mind sharing time, as well as employing an offensive and defensive system that ensures there are plenty of shots to go around for everyone. But also credit the older guys for setting the tone right away that in order to win, this team has to play as a T-E-A-M.
For an example of this, look no further than Trent Forrest. Trent has been nursing a bone bruise for a few weeks now that has kept him out of both exhibition games. But this hasn’t prevented Forrest from having an impact on the games. Look over to the bench and you’ll often see Forrest standing up, yelling out screens, and directing young guys into position. One play in particular stands out last night. After a missed shot, Thomas looked to get a transition look. As FSU’s defense was hurrying back, Ikey Obiagu lost his man. Trent yells out to Ike and points out his man leaking to the basket and Ike picks out Trent’s voice (telling me this happens in practice too), gets back to his man, and alters the shot.
While this team lacks the NBA lottery star power of a Jonathan Isaac, it certainly doesn’t lack depth. No fewer than 13 guys played between 12 and 17 minutes last night. And this is with a Forrest sitting out.
I don’t expect the rotation to be THAT deep during the season, but there really are probably 8 guys who could arguably start. The benefits of a deep team are obvious, both within a single game and over the course of the ACC grind. But one that is sometimes overlooked was on display against Thomas.
Late in the first half, FSU’s intensity and focus waned for really the only time all game. A timeout was called and several players were subbed out. The intensity immediately returned. The reality is, if a guy wants to play for this team, he is going to have to bust his tail on the court. Because if he doesn’t, there are 10 other capable guys all itching to get some run.
Bigs staying vertical
FSU blocked 11 shots last night and altered a dozen more. But as noted above, TU was so small we just can’t take anything from that. What did stand out to me was how much more vertical FSU defenders stayed around the rim. Last year, Chris Koumadje was often seen swatting down at shots, which leads to fouls. This year, at least so far, that seems to be much improved.
After the game, Koumadje admitted it was something he’s worked on. But he also said practicing against Obiagu has helped. Koumadje described Obiagu as a natural defender who is already a high-level shot blocker and watching him has been helpful for his own development.
Coach Ham has been building to a more positionless system for a few years now and he appears to have taken another step in that direction this year. Often times you look up, and other than the 7-footer underneath, you can’t really pick out who is playing what role.
Raiquon Gray, a guy listed at 260 pounds (but probably clears 270 after lunch) looks at ease bringing the ball up court on the fast break and tied for the team lead with a pair of threes. Braian Angola, coming off the bench, led the team in assists. Mann, Angola, and Brandon Allen combined for 11 rebounds.
The team can go small, they can go big, and just about everyone can run up and down the court. Now, all these interchangeable parts still need to get on the same page as far as making the correct read within the offensive and defensive systems. But if nothing else, this should be a really fun team to watch.