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Florida State basketball observations: Seminoles are a work in progress

Trends are emerging, both positive and negative.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Clemson Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

With the 2020 calendar mercifully closing out, the Florida State men’s basketball team remains a work in progress. Forced to replace two NBA lottery picks (Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell are already making solid contributions for their team) along with the winningest player in school history (Trent Forrest), this was always going to be a season of learning and evolving roles.

Add in a significantly disrupted off-season and minimal out-of-conference games, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that FSU’s performance on the court has been inconsistent.

With not quite 30% of the regular season already in the books, we’ve been able to spot some emerging trends. This piece is not meant to be an exhaustive opus detailing every positive and negative from the ‘Noles’ 5-2 start.

Rather, let’s explore some team and individual observations we’ve discussed in our Tomahawk Nation Slack, hopefully generating deeper discussion with the broader TN community.

Will the positives remain, or even become consistent calling cards of the 2020-21 team? What are some areas for growth and can any problem spots be fixed this season? Who’s impressing and who leaves us wanting more? These observations touch on a bit of everything.

Overall Team:

  • Experienced...on paper. A quick glance at FSU’s roster might make you think it’s a team full of experience. There are three seniors in the backcourt, with M.J. Walker, Nathaniel Jack, and Rayquan Evans. Fourth year juniors RaiQuan Gray, Anthony Polite, and Wyatt Wilkes are all regulars in the rotation, while Malik Osborne is in his third year in the system. However, a closer inspection reveals a more nuanced level of experience.

For starters, Jack and Evans, while seniors, have only appeared in 53 combined games for FSU. Compare that to a guy like Forrest, who suited up 137 times in the garnet and gold.

Even more significant, virtually every player listed above is being asked to execute a different role from previous seasons. Walker never played more than 60% of the team’s minutes in his first three years, often being used as a 3&D secondary scoring option. But through 7 games this season he’s not only being leaned on as the primary scorer, he’s also played nearly 80% of possible minutes, and that figure climbs to 85% in two ACC games.

Similarly, Gray and Polite have been asked to take on much more offensive and defensive responsibility, from increased playmaking to defensive rebounding. In fact, Polite is playing more minutes than every single guy on last year’s team save Forrest.

As anyone who’s ever changed jobs can attest, new responsibilities don’t just become new skills overnight. Think about when you start a new process at your work—everything seems to take longer and/or needs to be repeated. A basketball team is the same way. Currently, there are numerous players doing more thinking than playing. And this doesn’t even touch on a true freshman being asked to run the offense.

  • At least through seven games, there isn’t the functional depth of seasons past. tracks the percentage of minutes used by bench players, and FSU currently sits at 129th nationally (out of 333 teams), with the bench using 32.3% of the minutes. Not great, but still slightly above average. However, this is well below the recent bar set by FSU. Last year’s team was 24th with the bench using 38.5% of the minutes, 2019 was 31st (38.0%), and 2017 was 26th (39.6%). Even the injury-plagued 2018 season ranked 99th with the bench playing 34.3% of the minutes.

Will this change? Maybe. Evans started the season slowly, and Hamilton indicated he was more impacted emotionally by the Keyontae Johnson collapse than some. But he’s broken the 20 minute mark in consecutive games and also played his best basketball this season in those outings, so there’s hope he can start to be a more relied upon.

Meanwhile, it’s possible transfers Sardaar Calhoun and Tanor Ngom start to feel more comfortable in FSU’s system and perhaps both could increase their time on the court by 3-5 minutes per game. Those sound like small numbers, but being able to keep guys like Polite and Walker at 30-31 minutes instead of 34-35 minutes would make a meaningful difference over the full grind of the ACC slate.

However, even if the depth improves slightly, it’d be surprising to see it reach the level of the past few seasons. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker when it comes to success in March, as plenty of teams make a run playing 7-8 guys. However, it’ll mean Coach Ham & Co. may have to move away from some system staples and also be extremely thoughtful about the lineups they use when stealing minutes here and there for starters.

  • Where are the turnovers? Last year, Florida State relied on a boom or bust defense that could be vulnerable to dribble penetration, but more often than not overwhelmed teams into turnovers, leading to easy transition buckets. That team ranked 9th in defensive turnovers rate (23.7% of their opponents’ possessions) and 10th in steals (we love live-ball turnovers!). This year, FSU’s still getting beat off the dribble at times, but the Seminoles aren’t making up for it with as many deflections and steals. The defense currently ranks 74th in turnovers (21.8%) and just 74th in steals.

Those percentages are actually pretty similar to FSU’s 2019 team, which still found a way to go 29-8. However, that team was better at keeping opponents off the offensive glass and off the free throw line. So, if the ‘Noles aren’t going to wreak havoc in the passing lanes, they must start playing defense without fouling, while also ensuring teams don’t get as many second-chance opportunities.

Individual Players:

  • Scottie Barnes is special, but he’s still a freshman gaining comfort in his role. He looked brilliant at times against UF and Georgia Tech, but at other times has appeared unsure of when to be aggressive and when to make plays for others. He’s also seen his rebounding numbers drop the last couple games, and as noted above, part of #BigGuardU thriving is having their guards attack the glass.
  • Is Gray FSU’s best all-around player? I wouldn’t have dreamed of asking that question two years ago, but it’s at least worth discussing now. He’s certainly the best team defender and there’s a noticeable drop-off in execution and intensity when he leaves the floor. His shooting is improving, and he’s appeared to add a little mid-ranger floater to his repertoire, but he’s still not a genuine threat from three. However, his defensive rebounding is becoming borderline elite, with his 23.5% rate sitting above Mfiondu Kabengele’s sophomore season and just below Jonathan Isaac’s 25% clip.
  • Walker looks more comfortable and explosive, throwing down several rim-rocking dunks already this season and attacking the basket with purpose. In fact, his free throw rate (the rate at which a player gets to the line) has nearly doubled from last season. However, if he’s going to lead this team deep into March, he needs to do more than score. He’s never going to be the primary playmaker, and that’s okay (it’s not his strength and it’s not his role on the team), but he must start filling out the rest of the box score the way guys like Terance Mann and Forrest did as seniors.

Mann sported a 9.1% offensive rebounding rate his senior season, along with a 1.2% block rate. Forrest was not only the best playmaker on the team, he also was a tremendous rebounding guard with a 12.4% defensive rebounding rate, not to mention his 3.5% steal rate. Walker, meanwhile, has a 3.0% offensive rebounding rate, a 6.6% defensive rebounding rate, and a 1.5% steal rate. Those numbers all need to improve, and Walker himself has noted this in conversations.

  • Balsa Koprivica has improved as a rim protector and rebounder, and he looks more comfortable on offense, overall. However, he still needs to add a good bit of strength to truly unlock his potential. Unfortunately, that’s not something realistically accomplished mid-season, meaning it’s imperative he gets to his spots on time, establishing early position.
  • Polite is becoming a knockdown shooter who must be respected. Torching the nets at 52% from three probably isn’t sustainable, but even a 40-43% shooter will continue to space the floor for guys like Gray and Barnes. The left corner, in particular, is deadly for Polite, and opponents are starting to notice that on film. The next evolution of his offense will be putting it on the deck when defenders close out too aggressively and either going baseline for dunks, dishing to a cutter, or getting to the free throw line. Speaking of the free throw line: 19 shots is a small sample size, but a shooter of his caliber simply must do better than 53%. Free throw shooting is largely mental and improves with thousands of identical reps. Fortunately (unlike adding strength), this is something that can be improved in-season.

What are some observations or trends you’ve noticed? If you have questions, please fire away in the comment section.