What we’ve learned as Florida Gators basketball restarts without Keyontae Johnson

By Jake Winderman
December 30, 2020
What we’ve learned as Florida Gators basketball restarts without Keyontae Johnson
Basketball

Image Credit: @GatorsMBK / Twitter

Florida Gators basketball is less than a month into its 2020-21 campaign, but it has already experienced a season’s worth of adversity. Between starting the year more than a week late, dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in the offseason and junior forward Keyontae Johnson suddenly collapsing early in Florida’s last game against Florida State, the nonconference schedule was short and unrelenting for the Gators.

However, they resume their season on Wednesday, opening SEC play on the road at Vanderbilt. This on the back end of a 17-day hiatus in which Florida canceled its four final nonconference games while the team awaited updates on Johnson.

Johnson has since been released from the hospital after an 11-day stay, but he remains out indefinitely with an undisclosed medical condition. While the Gators may have mentally rebounded as a team — especially since head coach Mike White said Johnson has been around the facility helping coach and scout — they now have to figure out a way to win on the court without the SEC Preseason Player of the Year, who just so happens to be the team’s leading scorer.

What we’ve learned about Florida

Florida is 3-1 headed into its 18-game SEC schedule with wins over Army West Point, Boston College and Stetson and a loss to Florida State. The defeat was hard to analyze given the circumstances, especially since the Gators were going toe-to-toe with the Seminoles until Johnson’s collapse.

While Florida doesn’t know when or if Johnson will return, what we saw over its first few games was encouraging. After two years of slowing down the pace and trying to take the air out of the ball offensively and defensively, the Gators have been playing with tremendous tempo to start the 2020-21 campaign. Florida currently ranks 20th nationally in average offensive possession length and has been breaking out into its transition offense consistently off defensive rebounds and turnovers.

With Andrew Nembhard no longer at the helm at point guard, junior Tyree Appleby, sophomore Tre Mann and junior Ques Glover have made a point of pushing the rock in White’s new (but in actuality, old) fast-paced offense. Florida’s increased tempo and improved shooting from all three levels of the floor have the Gators ranked as a top-50 team nationally in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, effective field goal percentage and three-point percentage this season.

While Florida’s improved offense and faster pace from a year ago has been the main headline in the team’s four-game start to the 2020-21 campaign, the defense is what’s made the biggest stride from a season ago. After finishing 61st in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, the worst mark yet under White, the Gators are now 22nd in the NCAA in the most meaningful advanced defensive metric. Florida also finds itself in the top 60 nationally in opponent effective field goal percentage, opponent turnover percentage, opponent two-point percentage, steal percentage and block percentage.

What’s ahead for the Gators?

The Gators must prepare as if they will not have Johnson for the rest of the season. Florida went into 2020-21 with a Final Four ceiling and a Round of 32 floor considering the talent it had arriving in the form of eligible transfers and freshmen, along with a solid amount of returning players from last season. If Johnson is indeed out for the duration of the campaign, it’s appropriate to lower the Gators’ ceiling to the Elite Eight and their floor to the Round of 64. Even without Johnson, Florida is clearly an NCAA Tournament-caliber team, who with the right matchups, could still make a deep run in the big dance.

The two biggest factors in the Gators reaching their full potential, sans Johnson, will undoubtedly be Mann and sophomore guard Scottie Lewis. The two former McDonald’s High School All-Americans had a slow start to their collegiate careers as freshmen but have since broken out during their sophomore campaigns.

Mann is averaging a team-leading 15.8 points, 4.8 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game on a ridiculously efficient 62.5% shooting from beyond the arc. His added height and weight from a season ago have contributed to his ability to become a more efficient scorer around the rim and to create more space off the dribble. Mann will need to continue to score the rock efficiently for the Gators to make up for Johnson’s potentially lost 16 points per game. Defensively, he’s is now big enough to guard point guards through small forwards and has arguably made the biggest strides overall from a season ago on that side of the ball.

Mann may now take over as the single-most important player on the team following Johnson’s absence, but Lewis will have to do more than any other player to try and replicate Johnson’s role on the floor. When Johnson was healthy, Lewis had pretty much been slotted in to the small forward role with minimal changes game-to-game in terms of tasks at hand. Johnson had been playing as a slightly undersized power forward who made up for his lack of height with an extremely strong frame, elite athleticism and above-average defensive instincts. Lewis will need to take over that power forward role in Johnson’s absence, and I think he’ll be successful in doing so.

Lewis also has the elite athleticism and plus defensive instincts that Johnson possesses, but he will makeup for his lack of power forward-like height with an extremely long wingspan as opposed to Johnson’s fix with a bigger frame. The former five-star recruit excelled in Johnson’s absence vs. Florida State, posting a career-high 19 points on 4 of 5 shooting from downtown with four rebounds, three assists, three blocks and two steals. The Gators will need these types of performances consistently from Lewis during Johnson’s recovery. If Lewis is capable of replicating even close to that level of play the rest of the season, he’ll elevate himself into the lottery conversation of the 2021 NBA Draft.

While Mann and Lewis are the two most important players in replacing Johnson’s statistical output, multiple wings and forwards will also need to step up in his absence. I expect to see freshmen Samson Ruzhentsev and Niels Lane, along with junior Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji, gain the biggest increases in minutes for the duration of the 2020-21 season. Ruzhentsev will need to make up for the lack of wing scoring and shooting the Gators get with Johnson, while Lane and Duruji must be able to give Florida the defensive boost that Johnson normally did while on the floor.

At the end of the day, replacing Johnson isn’t a one-man job. It’s something the Gators will need to continually figure out the rest of the season for as long as Johnson recovers. Florida will get that initial chance to see what pieces work best in his absence when it faces Vanderbilt in the teams’ SEC-opener on Wednesday.

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