The Florida Gators Are Keyontae Johnson's Team Now

Updated: Jun 5


Keyontae Johnson drives into the lane against Kentucky

BY FRANZ BEARD

GATORBAIT COLUMNIST


Three very significant things happened to the Florida basketball team last week. First came the announcement – not unexpected – that Andrew Nembhard was withdrawing from the NBA Draft but putting his name in the NCAA Transfer Portal. Then came word from several sources that Tre Mann would also be withdrawing from the NBA Draft but would be returning to the Gators. Had Nembhard elected to stay at Florida for his junior year, Mann would have been the one transferring out. Mann, for his part has said he has not yet made a final decision.


The third, and most significant event, was the ever so quiet transfer of team leadership. Make no mistake about it, this is Keyontae Johnson’s team now. It’s not exactly a role he’s lobbied for, but two consecutive seasons of steady improvement to the point that he returns for his junior season as an All-SEC performer have thrust him into a role that he is immensely qualified to handle.

When the 2019-20 season ended abruptly for all of college basketball because of the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, Johnson was playing the best basketball of his Florida career. He was the Gators’ leading scorer (14.0 points per game), capable of taking games over as a jump shooter (38% from the three-point line) or as a lethal straight line driver to the rack, and the second leading rebounder (7.1 per game), perhaps the best Florida had when a game was on the line. During the month of February, he made steady progress up the prospect lists for NBA scouts and was thought to be a mid-second round or possibly slightly higher choice if he elected to throw his name into the NBA Draft hat.

But instead of declaring for the draft, Johnson made a quick, bold decision within days of season’s end that he was coming back to the University of Florida. With that declaration, the 2020-21 Gators became Keyontae Johnson’s team. Leaders lead and that was a statement of leadership made more powerful by Nembhard’s decision to declare for the draft, which was made shortly after Johnson said he was staying.

In defense of Nembhard, he’s a great kid and an outstanding basketball player but as his sophomore season unfurled it became more and more apparent that he wasn’t the perfect fit Mike White needed as a point guard. Nembhard is a fine passer in a half court offense and he’s a streaky enough shooter that if he heats up at the right time he can take over a game. What he is not is a consistent outside shooter or an effective point guard in an open court offense that is predicated by full court pressure defense, which is precisely the kind of game that White intends to play.

Nembhard (11.2 points, 3.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists per game) tested the NBA waters after his freshman year as well but had he stayed in, wouldn’t have been taken in either the first or second rounds. During his sophomore season, he didn’t make significant progress as a prospect. Some of the blame could be that Nembhard simply wasn’t the right fit in White’s offense but it also has something to do with his inability to consistently hit open three-pointers – 30.8% as a sophomore, a significant drop from the 34.7% he hit as a freshman. From midseason onward, opponents sagged in the paint to try to snuff out Kerry Blackshear Jr., almost daring Nembhard to knock down threes and make them pay.

So, now Nembhard is leaving for what he perceives to be greener pastures. Gonzaga, which has a long history of Canadians (Nembhard is from Toronto) is being mentioned as a possible landing spot but there will be no shortage of suitors. To make the transfer work in his favor, Nembhard needs to do his homework and find the coach who runs an offense that best fits his skill set. He will almost certainly apply for a waiver from the NCAA to play immediately.

Mann declared for the NBA Draft shortly after Nembhard and it wasn’t exactly a state secret that if Nembhard elected to stay, Mann would be searching for a new place to play. That is nothing personal, just that Mann’s future is as a combo guard who plays on the wing and gets minutes at the point. Had Nembhard returned, the Gators would have had three point guards – Nembhard, Ques Glover (4.4 points coming off the bench as a freshman) and Tyree Appleby, who sat out 2019-20 after transferring in from Cleveland State where he averaged 17.2 points and 5.6 assists per game as a sophomore. Three point guards wouldn’t have been conducive to Mann seeing minutes at the point but that situation clears up measurably with Nembhard leaving.

As a freshman, Mann got off to a rather good start but he suffered a concussion in the Charleston Classic and it took all of December and January for him to regain his confidence and the playing time he lost. Once into February, Mann played with more consistency and had his best game of the season on the road at Kentucky where he scored 34 points while knocking down 3-4 from the three-point line.

What was abundantly evident during Mann’s last season was his need to add some muscle. A skinny 172 pounds stretched over a 6-4 frame, he was consistently pushed around in SEC play. Mann needs to play at or near 190 pounds to be able to handle the physical nature of the Southeastern Conference where games with teams like Tennessee seem to play with a no autopsy, no foul demeanor. He’s a gifted scorer and a far better three-point shooter than the final 5.3 points and 27.5% he posted as a freshman.


That brings us back to Keyontae Johnson and his decision to return for his junior year. In his two seasons in a UF uniform, Johnson has been the poster child for hard work. Perhaps no player in the Southeastern Conference has made more improvement from first game in November 2018 to final game in 2020. When he came to Florida, Johnson had a well-earned reputation as a high flyer who could deliver astonishing power dunks. He still dunks with regularity and offers up highlight reel throw downs on breakaways, but his game has expanded in every single aspect. He’s no longer just a straight line driver who is quick enough to get to the rack but a consistent jump shooter who rarely launches a bad shot. He’s become a reliable passer (third on the team with 49 assists) and a tough defender (led the team in steals with 38) capable of locking down quick guys on the perimeter or playing head up against taller players in the paint.

Keyontae Johnson has grown into the Gators most dependable player

The improvement has been easy to follow to even the untrained eye and it has been done without a lot of fanfare. Although you can see how fiery he is on the court, he’s rather soft spoken off in the media room and is never going to make controversial statements. Ask a question and the answer is usually well thought out, words carefully selected. Obviously, whether it’s during a game or at a press conference, is the enormous respect he has earned from teammates and Head Coach Mike White.

Johnson has been more of a lead by example type but this is his team now and he’ll need to assume more of a vocal role next season. That shouldn’t be too difficult a transition and quite possibly one of the reasons he returned to UF. He will continue to set the tone in practice by outworking everyone and when he speaks, teammates will listen. That’s the kind of thing that happens when you’ve spent two seasons rarely missing an opportunity to get better, whether it’s at practice or in a game.

* * *

With Nembhard’s departure and Mann [likely] returning, the Gators are at the NCAA maximum 13 scholarships. If Michigan transfer Colin Castleton applies for and receives a waiver to play immediately, White will have a full bench to work with for the first time in four years.

Here is a breakdown of the 2020-21 roster:

JUNIORS (6): Keyontae Johnson (6-5, 235); Noah Locke (6-3, 205); Anthony Duruji (6-8, 215, RS/TR); Tyree Appleby (6-1, 165, RS/TR); Osayi Osifo (6-8, 210, JC/TR); Colin Castleton (6-11, 235, TR)

SOPHOMORES (5): Scottie Lewis (6-5, 180); Tre Mann (6-4, 172); Omar Payne (6-10, 225); Ques Glover (5-11, 175); Jason Jitoboh (6-11, 280)

FRESHMEN (2): Samson Ruzhentsev (6-8, 210); Niels Lane (6-5, 195)

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