Five storylines to follow as Florida State men's basketball opens preseason practice
When the Florida State men's basketball team takes the court to start the upcoming season, it will do so as a new-look team.
The Seminoles, fresh off their third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, have quite a few big holes to fill entering the 2021-22 season.
Gone are four of their top five scorers off last year's team, three of whom were taken in this year's NBA Draft. But FSU's stellar recruiting class ranks No. 8 nationally, not including a few key transfer additions, should help fill the gaps left behind by these departures.
Despite these losses, FSU should start the season comfortably inside the top 25 as it sets out on its path for a second ACC regular-season championship in three years' time.
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"I think we have some guys that are going to step up and replace the guys that played so well for us last year that have moved on. Hopefully we'll continue that trend where it's not as much about who it is, just let the system provide guys opportunities to step into their next roles..." FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton said Wednesday.
"We like this team, I'm comfortable with them and I just think that you guys are going to like them as well. This is going to be a fun bunch. I think you're going to see them giving tremendous effort, playing with a lot of pride, representing the Seminole brand and the 'New Blood' nickname that we have dubbed ourselves."
The path to the regular season begins in earnest Friday when the Seminoles open preseason camp ahead of their season opener against Penn on Nov. 10th.
Here are a few storylines to watch within the program in the lead up to the start of the season.
1. Scorers needed
The departures of M.J. Walker, RaiQuan Gray, Balsa Koprivica and Scottie Barnes leave FSU in need of scorers to step up. This quartet, all of whom are now in NBA training camps, combined to account for over 56% of the Seminoles' scoring last season.
FSU does return a few major contributors from last season including redshirt senior guard Anthony Polite (10.1 points, 4.5 rebounds per game, 43.6% three-point shooting last year) and redshirt senior forward Malik Osborne (5.9 points, 4.5 rebounds per game).
However, much of this scoring may fall to new members of the team. One of the new additions who seems most ready for a sizable role is Houston transfer guard Caleb Mills.
As a redshirt freshman at Houston in 2019-20, Mills led the Cougars in scoring averaging 13.2 points per game. He left the program a few games into the 2020-21 season after he was picked as the Preseason AAC Player of the Year ahead of the season beginning.
He enrolled at FSU last spring and got to be around the team through the final few months of the Seminoles' season. He may not need to be the volume scorer he was at Houston -- no one really scores in bunches consistently in Hamilton's offense -- but he'll be a contender for leading the team in scoring in his first season at FSU.
"Caleb never had a chance to work out with us last year. He attended all the meetings, all the skull sessions, but he never really had a chance to participate," Hamilton said.
"He went through a slight injury and we never seemed to be able to get everything together where he could have been a part of the learning experience of being with the green team last year.
"From a physical standpoint, he's starting from scratch. But mentally, he was there in all the meetings, watching, studying. He's a fairly mature youngster so I feel very confident that his transition will be a lot easier than it would have been."
2. Emerging bigs
With Koprivica, who started 20 games at center last season, moving on to the NBA after just two seasons at FSU, it puts an onus on a few of FSU's bigs to step into bigger roles.
Osborne is a capable center when FSU wants to employ its small-ball lineup, but Hamilton's defense normally relies on having a traditional center in the middle as an anchor of sorts.
Tanor Ngom, a 7-foot-2 center, is one of two scholarship players who used the extra eligibility granted to him by the NCAA to return to FSU for the upcoming season. Ngom arrived at FSU late last offseason after transferring from Ryerson University in Canada.
In his first season with the Seminoles, he averaged just over six minutes per game, 2.4 points and 1.7 rebounds. Now nearing the end of his first full offseason, Hamilton and his staff have been impressed by his strides.
"There's no doubt that Tanor is a little further along because he was in our system last year. He's made a lot of adjustments..." Hamilton said.
"He's become more of a leader on the team at that position."
Another potential contributor inside is JUCO transfer Naheem McLeod, who committed to FSU out of high school but had to take the junior college route before finally arriving at his desired college basketball program.
McLeod arrives at FSU as one of the highest-rated 2021 JUCO prospects, No. 6 overall and the No. 3 JUCO center. At 7-foot-4, he's the tallest player on FSU's roster and fits that mold that Hamilton and his staff are looking for in centers.
This preseason will be indicative of how ready he is for a role in his first season.
The wild card here is 7-foot-1 true freshman John Butler. He's a good bit underweight to play inside, currently listed at 190 pounds and as a forward. He may not be ready to play this season, but he's made waves within the team since arriving on campus.
"That dude, he has a lot of potential. I said the first time I saw him and I still say it almost every day after practice that this man has a lot of potential to be a fantastic player, a big time player," Osborne said of Butler.
"He moves well, he moves quickly for his size at seven feet, he has long wingspan, great defensive instincts, and then on top of that, the man can shoot from the three point line to dunking on people at the basket. His potential to me is unlimited."
3. Which freshmen will have roles?
While Butler arrives at FSU as the 70th-ranked recruit in the 2021 class, he was the third-highest-rated high school recruit in the Seminoles' signing class.
Five-star small forward Matthew Cleveland (No. 24 overall recruit) and four-star combo guard Jalen Warley (No. 42 overall recruit) are the two premier pieces of the class. With so many holes left on this year's roster, both should have plenty of opportunities to make an instant impact as possible one-and-done prospects.
Cleveland arrives at FSU as one of the 10 highest-rated recruits in program history, just ahead of Patrick Williams at No. 7. As a senior at Pace Academy in Atlanta, he was a MaxPreps second-team All-American after averaging 22.8 points, 10.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 steals.
Warley was a McDonalds All-American out of Mt. Airy, Pa. just outside of Pittsburgh. He's the 15th-highest-rated recruit in FSU history after putting up 15.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists his senior year.
"They all have been going through a learning curve, but I must say I'm extremely pleased with how fast learners they have shown to be. They've made tremendous adjustments. Every day I'm watching them closely because we need first-year players to be major contributors to us this year," Hamilton said.
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"I'm seeing that they're having an understanding of our system. They have definitely adjusted to our culture and you don't end up calling the names very much because they have adjusted. Obviously we started doing a lot of correcting, but I must say that they ask a lot of questions, they're gym rats, every time I come by and hear the ball bounces, most of the time it's one of them...Being the quick learners they are, I'm expecting them to be early contributors."
Butler and his likely need to put on weight means he may not make the instant impact that Cleveland and Warley do, but he may be able to carve out some sort of role for himself as a true freshman off the bench.
4. RayQuan Evans back at point
In a larger role last season with 18 starts in 24 games, RayQuan Evans didn't seem to take the next step in his progression.
His playing time rose from 11.4 minutes per game in his first year at FSU to 19.1 last season, but his shooting metrics dropped from 45.6% from the floor and 41.2% from three to 36.6% and 36% despite his scoring numbers going up.
It was unclear if Evans would be using his extra year of eligibility to return or if he would explore another opportunity, but he announced in July he would be coming back to Tallahassee for one more season.
On a team with so many new faces, Evans' presence at point guard could be a stabilizing force for the Seminoles. Warley and Polite may get some time running the offense, but it should be Evans who is relied on most heavily as a more traditional point guard.
"I think that Evans now is more vocal. He speaks up more. I think a lot of the younger guys are looking to him for leadership," Hamilton said.
"I think you can expect him to be a lot more of a vocal and energetic, enthusiastic leader than what he's been in the past."
5. Will Florida State maintain its three-point stroke?
A season ago, FSU was among the best three-point shooting teams in the country.
The Seminoles' 37.65% three-point percentage last year was the 22nd-best in the country, the fifth-best among high-major schools and the best in the ACC.
FSU loses its most prolific three-point shooter off last year's team in Walker (42.3%) and also must replace Sardaar Calhoun and Nathanael Jack, who both transferred this offseason after hitting 39.7% and 37%, respectively, from outside the arc this season.
In spite of these losses, FSU could still be a strong three-point shooting team.
Polite shot a team-high 43.6% from three last year on a slightly smaller sample size than Walker. Osborne, Evans and redshirt senior Wyatt Wilkes are all back as well after shooting better than 36% from the perimeter last season. In his freshman season at Houston, Mills made 36.5% of his three-pointers.
Add in the potential of the incoming freshmen and FSU should again have a number of players capable of stretching the court and finding success from the perimeter.
Reach Curt Weiler at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @CurtMWeiler.
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