On the surface, it appeared to be the start of a wonderful relationship.
Florida coach Billy Donovan gained a verbal commitment from Nick Calathes when Calathes was a sophomore in high school, promising him the opportunity to compete for national championships on a yearly basis.
Now, it turns out, Calathes might leave Florida without even playing in the NCAA Tournament. Calathes entered his name into the NBA draft pool on Monday, putting serious doubt into whether the 6-foot-6 point guard will return for his junior season.
It’s hard to fathom. The fresh-faced Calathes, with his dark hair in a crew-cut, resembled a young Donovan. He even earned the nickname “Little Billy” as a freshman.
Donovan may have even viewed Calathes as a taller version of himself. Calathes was a point guard who could both score and create, like Donovan did in his days with the Providence Friars.
But it’s clear over two years that the relationship had its rocky moments. A close family acquaintance said Calathes was “furious” that he was benched in the final 2:40 of a critical late-season game at Mississippi State. The next day, Donovan said that Calathes needed to do more late in games to get the rest of his teammates involved. The family acquaintance said that further irked Calathes, who is Florida’s two-time single-season record holder in assists.
Publicly, though, Calathes said he didn’t have a problem with the benching: “I need to do a better job running the team.”
But following the Mississippi State loss, Calathes wasn’t the same. He looked tentative, not knowing whether to finish in the lane or make the extra pass that Donovan had ordered him to do in late-game situations. It didn’t help that Calathes hit a late-season shooting slump. His confidence, soaring at midseason, took a hit at the worst possible time.
So it’s fair to wonder now if benching Calathes at Mississippi State was the right move. If Calathes leaves, the lesson will benefit a professional team, not Florida. It certainly didn’t bother Donovan when Calathes was assertive down the stretch against North Carolina State, scoring UF’s final 12 points in a 68-66 win.
What changed? For one thing, Calathes lost Donovan’s confidence by missing big free throws late in close losses at South Carolina and at Kentucky. But at times when Calathes tried to defer, no one else stepped up. How many times did Calathes drive and kick down the stretch in losses at Kentucky and at Georgia only to have teammates Dan Werner and Chandler Parsons miss wide-open 3-point attempts?
Let’s keep in mind that instead of Calathes, Donovan turned to freshman Erving Walker as his go-to guy in tight games in March. Walker had a terrific freshman season and the size of his heart belies his 5-foot-8 frame. But because of his size, Walker had critical shots late in games blocked against Tennessee and Auburn.
Calathes, meanwhile could finish his Florida career scoring more points than any player in school history scored through their sophomore year.
Maybe the Kenny Boynton era will be different. If Calathes leaves, his era will be remembered more by what could have been if he had a better supporting cast that surrounded him.