Asked if he envisioned at the beginning of the season that redshirt freshman Isaiah Stokes would contribute 18 meaningful minutes in a critical conference match-up, Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White slightly restructured the question’s timeline before giving an in-depth answer.
“Probably mid-summer I was hopeful he would have some games that would be comparable to that, but we just couldn’t get him in the type of condition that was necessary. And really, his conditioning, his ability to move at the necessary level, especially defensively, to be productive at this level, was the same in September as it was in December,” White said Saturday after Florida’s 64-60 win over Missouri at the O’Connell Center. “So the huge jump he’s made, he’s made very recently. He’s had unbelievable focus recently. He’s shown himself and all of us what he’s capable of doing.”
Why would it take this long for someone with Stokes’ talent to begin realizing their potential, White wondered.
“I guess he was sick of sitting over there by us (coaches) and wanted to be able to help his teammates a little bit more,” White quipped. “His focus has been great. Off the floor, he’s been very responsible, in terms of watching everything that he’s eating. And now his knee feels better, carrying less weight. So yeah, he’s in a pretty good place. You know, if he doesn’t do what he does today, we don’t win this game.”
What Stokes did Saturday, at least initially, was keep the Gators in the game during a rough first half on the offensive end. With Kevarrius Hayes limited to just two minutes due to foul trouble, Stokes provided three of Florida’s seven makes from the field in the first half in relief of UF’s senior center. He would finish the game with a career-high 18 minutes, although the in-depth box score — Stokes finished with a plus/minus of -7 — seemed to suggest the Memphis native has a ways to go defensively.
When it comes to player development, White has often put much of the responsibility on the individual, saying the program’s strength and conditioning and diet regimen can only carry a student-athlete to a certain point. Following the plan rather than deviating is up to the player.
“(Coach White) has been telling me year-round, all the time. He’s the one who sat me down and gave me the man-to-man talk and told me how it is,” Stokes said. “It was just my decision if I’m going to do it or not, and I finally bought into it.”
Getting closer to his goal weight of 250 pounds, Stokes said the key was cutting out certain foods.
“I love healthy foods, eating a healthy diet. But I was just eating the wrong healthy food. Too many potatoes and too many starches. And I just cut it all out. And it’s going my way now,” Stokes said. “You go to Chipotle and you can’t get rice anymore.”
When it comes to his recent transition, Stokes also credited the team’s strength and conditioning coordinator, Preston Greene, with helping him realize he needed to change his dietary habits if he hoped to contribute to the team.
“He just sat me down. We really looked at everything that I do, on and off, and I stopped eating past a certain time. Try to make yourself feel full, things like that,” Stokes said. “I always talk with Preston, but I would say it’s more on my part more than anybody else’s, just doing it. That’s the hardest part, just doing it.”
The difference has been night and day, and it’s coming at the right time for a team making a late push for NCAA Tournament qualification.
“I feel much, much better. I feel like I’m moving better, defending better. All-around better,” said Stokes, acknowledging he still has plenty of room for improvement despite his recent progression. “I got to do a better job of defending ball screens, I feel like I’m getting better at it. Be a great post defender. Just do everything on the defensive end, and everything will play out.”
Who: Florida (16-11, 8-6 SEC) vs. Vanderbilt (12-15, 0-14)
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850