It is rare for a freshman to start right out of the gate for the Florida Gators but that is exactly what point guard Kasey Hill did last season as he flashed explosiveness and potential in place of Scottie Wilbekin, who was suspended for the first six games of the 2013-14 campaign due to a violation of team rules.
Unfortunately for Hill, he only got four starts to himself to begin the season, as an ankle injury he suffered against Southern put him on the shelf for two weeks. By the time Hill returned to the court, Wilbekin was firmly entrenched again as Florida’s starter, but Hill nevertheless averaged 21 minutes per game over his final 28 contests (he missed four more games due to a groin injury).
With Wilbekin one of four seniors no longer with the program, and Hill easily the most experienced and talented point guard remaining on the Gators’ roster, the sophomore will have no questions about his role with the team this season.
Head coach Billy Donovan, a former floor general himself, has an affinity for his point guards but has also been notoriously demanding of those that played the position for him.
He has no plans to go any easier on Hill, who he believes has an extremely high ceiling but a ways to go to reach his full potential.
“He’s really, obviously explosive in the open court. He’s great when he gets in the lane. I think the biggest thing for him is, one, he needs to be more of a physical point guard, especially on the defensive end of the floor, than he’s been,” Donovan said.
“I think last year he had some really incredible bright spots and then he had some spots where he learned a great deal. We couldn’t maybe rely on him as much. … The biggest challenge I see in Kasey is what kind of jump he can make defensively. That’s going to be really, really important.”
Hill claims he already feels “a lot more comfortable on defense,” explaining that his familiarity with Florida’s rotations and Donovan’s demands has allowed him to steadily improve. “I know where to be at. I’m not guessing like I was last year,” he said. “I still have troubles, but I’m a lot more comfortable than I was last year.”
Hill not only struggled defensively, as many true freshman do, he also had some difficulties shooting the ball, especially from long range (.143) and at the free throw line (.663). For a player who is so talented at getting to the basket, Hill will not only get plenty of cushion beyond the arc but also get his shot contested when he attacks the rim.
Though he will need to find a way to take better advantage of those situations, Donovan is not too concerned about his progress in those areas.
“I’m not really worried about his shooting. I think he needs to take good shots. I do think he’s gotten better as a shooter. But he really needs to play to his strengths, and we need to help him do that,” he said.
Where Hill has made the greatest gains thus far, according to Donovan, is by showcasing a significantly improved level of urgency in practice. He has also learning how to remain level emotionally, never getting too high when things go right or too low when adversity strikes on the court.
“[He’s] totally different. The one thing I was disappointed at last year – and Kasey knows this because we’ve had discussions about this – a lot of times his energy and his effort was really up and down. He’s such a great kid, he’s so laid back sometimes, that it’s not a good disposition to have as a 6’1” point guard,” explained Donovan.
“Since we’ve practiced, I have not seen any of that. That would be an area that I’ve seen growth in him, which is going to make our team better and is going to make him better as well. He looks like he has energy, he looks like he’s got a motor, he looks like he’s got enthusiasm. … Can he maintain what he’s doing right now? Because he’s playing at a really fast pace, he’s playing with a lot of energy, he’s trying to defend much better. There’s much more of a commitment there. I can see he’s really made a growth and matured in some areas.”
Experience practicing against Wilbekin and going head-to-head with top-tier point guards like UConn’s Shabazz Napier allowed Hill to gain tremendous experience during his freshman campaign, more than most first-year point guards are able to get under their belt in their first season.
Now, Hill must put it all together and become a stalwart for a Florida team in desperate need of four trustworthy starters to run alongside junior guard Michael Frazier II.
Donovan is of the opinion that Hill has the mindset and temperament to succeed.
“He’s a great kid. I love coaching him. He’s coachable,” Donovan said of Hill. “He wants the truth. I think a lot of players sometimes don’t like hearing the truth. He does. I think that gives him a chance to grow and get better.”