Florida coach Mike White and his staff needed time to show the Gator basketball brand was healthy after the departure of future Hall of Fame coach Billy Donovan.
But coming off leading Florida to an Elite Eight last March, White and his staff are putting together their best signing class yet for 2018.
With the announcement of 6-foot-5 forward Keyontae Johnson signing with the Gators on Sunday night, the Gators have nabbed a pair of four-star signees and one five-star signee in the early signing period for its 2018 class. Four-star 6-2 shooting guard Noah Locke and four/five-star 6-4 point guard Andrew Nembhard signed with the Gators on Thursday.
Johnson, a Norfolk, Va., native, posted a triple-double in his high school senior opener on Friday night at prestigious Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, a school that’s produced future NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley. At last summer’s Pearl Jam, the 195-pound Johnson averaged 11 points and 8 rebounds while posting a 41-inch vertical leap.
“We’re really excited about what Keyontae will bring to our team,” White said. “His skill set complements Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke in this class. Just like those guys, we think he will fit this team really well on the court and in the locker room.”
With the signing of Johnson, Florida’s 2018 class vaulted to 11th in the nation according to 24.7sports rankings. While the three signings put Florida out of scholarship room for 2018, that could change next spring if players decide to transfer or declare early. Anfernee Simmons, a five-star prospect shooting guard from outside Orlando, de-committed from Louisville and has expressed interest in playing at UF. Simmons is not expected to sign until the spring period in April.
The three signings fit the long-range vision that White has for the UF program — teams with size in the backcourt, shooting ability and athleticism at the wing spots. Coming to Florida, White and his staff had national contacts from their time at Louisiana Tech, but went through an adjustment period recruiting to the SEC level. In trying to put together its 2017 class, for example, Florida got an early commitment from Canadian point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who flipped before National Signing Day and ended up signing with rival Kentucky. But White and his staff regrouped to put together a strong 2017 incoming freshman class that included four-star power forward Chase Johnson, four-star swingman Deaundrae Johnson, four-star center Isaiah Stokes and three-star point guard Michael Okauru.
Now, UF’s 2018 class appears even more talented than 2017.
“It speaks to the job that my staff is done,” White said. “They have developed a really good relationship with these guys and their families. They put us in a good position to bring those guys to campus to a fit those guys thought it was.”
White said UF’s Elite Eight run last March also opened some doors. Nembhard is UF’s first five-star recruit in three classes under White and was sold on the long-range potential of the program and a chance to compete for championships.
“Last year’s team and last year’s class … if we don’t have that increase in culture, buy into the defensive end, we don’t make that run in March – led by Devin (Robinson) and Justin (Leon) and Kasey (Hill) and (Johnson) Egbunu, who is hurt, and Canyon Barry … I’m not sure we land those guys,” White said. “Our current players, our former players are a big part of our recruiting.”
Ballard, who signed with the Gators before last March’s Elite Eight run, said being part of a winner is what many players covet coming out of high school.
“The most fun is that I’m with a winning team,” Ballard said. “So they have a lot of experience. Coaches as well, they know how to win, put us in the right position.”