Casey Prather’s star turn a boon for Florida

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NEW YORK — Billy Donovan said that this season, for his Gators, has been exhausting.

Between the injuries and the suspensions and the academic issues, the status of Florida’s roster has been a bigger story to date than their performance against teams like Wisconsin or UConn or Kansas.

“I almost keep looking around to see who is going to be walking through the door that I don’t know about,” the Florida head coach quipped after his No. 15 Gators held off No. 16 Memphis 77-75 in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. “It’s been a real drain on our team emotionally.”

I can imagine. Scottie Wilbekin was suspended for five games, leaving Florida with a freshman, Kasey Hill, starting at the point. Hill sprained his ankle before Wilbekin returned, and when Wilbekin finally did make it back to the court, he sprained his ankle in a game at UConn that Hill was unable to suit up. Michael Frazier had mono. Dorian Finney-Smith was hurt. Eli Carter is redshirting. Chris Walker is just now getting back to practice, something that may never happen with Damontre Harris.

Did I miss anything? Probably.

The irony of it all? All of those off-the-floor issues and all of that time in the training room may have actually been the best thing that could have happened to the Gators this season. You see, while Donovan was busy trying to figure out who will run the point or what his front court rotation will look like or how the heck he is going to be able to scrimmage 5-on-5 in practice, senior Casey Prather has quietly turned into one of the nation’s best scorers.

“I am just trying to do what needs to be done for the team,” said Prather, a former top 50 recruit that’s humble enough to perfect every press conference cliché you can think of.

Prather entered the season having spent the past three seasons filling a role for the Gators (8-2). He was a defensive stopper. He was a finisher in transition. He was glue-guy, a blue-collar scrapper that picked up more floor-burns than he did buckets. As a junior, he averaged career-highs of 6.2 points and 17.1 minutes. He was an afterthought. In previews of Florida’s team, he was the guy that was mentioned in passing at the end, with a note about how he’ll add to Florida’s versatility and depth.

No one saw him becoming a leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year as we head towards the holidays.

Entering Tuesday night, Prather was averaging 18.2 points, 6.1 boards and 2.3 assists while shooting 61.3% from the floor and getting to the charity stripe 7.6 times per game. Against Memphis, Prather finished with 22 points and four boards, hitting 8-of-13 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the charity stripe. He scored the last eight points for the Gators, twice having plays run for him in the half court while knocking down four straight free throws in the final 80 seconds.

Again, no one saw this coming.

And I’m not sure it actually would have happened had the Gators been at full strength entering the season. Florida had a void to begin the year, and Prather simply stepped up and played his part. “I took it upon myself to be a leader,” he said, “to hold myself accountable for my mistakes and for my actions that helps us win.” The missing players “freed him up to evolve into this position,” Donovan said.

The difference in Prather isn’t that he has become a totally different player this season. He didn’t magically transform into Paul George during the offseason. He isn’t the second-coming of Kobe Bryant. No NBA scouts are going to be confusing Prather with Andrew Wiggins or Marcus Smart. It’s actually quite the opposite. Prather has learned to trust his ability, to embrace his strengths and take advantage of what he does best.

“Sometimes guys, when they get in there and want to have an opportunity to play at the next level and they’re 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, people say, ‘he’s got to shoot the ball better,'” Donovan said. “When he was a freshman and sophomore, he was so consumed with his jumpshot. That’s all he wanted to do. It was probably seven or eight things he did better than shoot the basketball. He’s not a high-volume three-point shooter. He slashes to the basket. He offensive rebounds. He gets on the break. He can go off the dribble. He can play off the bounce. He’s playing to his strengths instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses.”

“It’s the first time I feel like he’s playing with a clear head and a clear mind. ‘Ok, here’s who I am as a player. Here’s how I can take advantage of it.'”

According to Synergy, Prather had taken just seven jump shots on the season entering Tuesday night, with the rest of his field goals either coming at the rim, on post-ups, runners or in transition. I’d call that playing to his strengths.

And it came at a time where the Gators needed him the most.

Prather didn’t remake himself in the offseason. He simply took advantage of an opportunity, and Florida is currently reaping the benefits.

Because with Prather playing this way, the Gators are a legitimate title contender.

Memphis, Penny land commitment from second five-star prospect, Precious Achiuwa

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The transformation is complete.

On Friday afternoon, Precious Achiuwa, a top 15 prospect in the Class of 2019, announced that he has committed to play his college basketball at Memphis, joining one of the best recruiting classes in the country and affirming that Penny Hardaway will enter the 2019-20 season with a preseason top 10 team.

Achiuwa, one of the top combo-forwards in the class and the kind of athlete that will make him an attractive player to NBA GMs, joins No. 1 player James Wiseman and fellow four-star prospects D.J. Jeffries, Lester Quinones, Boogie Ellis, Damion Baugh and Malcolm Dandridge in Penny’s first real recruiting class as Memphis head coach.

The Tigers also add Rayjon Tucker, arguably the nation’s top grad transfer and a potential NBA player in his own right.

As we wrote earlier this week, Penny is building an absolute monster in Memphis.

Grant Williams will remain in 2019 NBA Draft

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Grant Williams announced on Friday morning that he will be staying in the NBA draft after an All-American junior season with Tennessee.

Williams averaged 18.8 points, 7.5 boards, 3.2 assists, 1.5 blocks and 1.1 steals this past season, helping lead Tennessee to a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and on a run to the Sweet 16, where they lost in overtime to Purdue.

This is probably the right decision for him to make. While he is somewhat undersized and limited athletically, Williams is such a smart and savvy players. He really understands how to pass, he can defend multiple positions and, most importantly, he has a skill-set that should allow him to be able to contribute as a role player at the next level, particularly if his three-point stroke is as good as it has looked in postseason workouts.

Williams is slotted in at No. 19 to San Antonio in the most recent NBC Sports mock draft.

Tennessee will now have to play the waiting game with Jordan Bone, who is still undecided on his status. The Vols currently sit 22nd in the NBC Sports preseason top 25.

Clemson lands Texas Tech transfer Khavon Moore

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Clemson is adding a former top-50 recruit to its roster.

Texas Tech transfer Khavon Moore has pledged to coach Brad Brownell and the Tigers, he announced Thursday.

The 6-foot-7 Moore, a former four-star recruit, played just 2 minutes last season for the Red Raiders and saw his season shutdown amid medical concerns due to lingering issues from a broken leg he suffered in high school. The plan was for him to seek a medical hardship redshirt for last season, which could allow him to still have four years of eligibility remaining at Clemson after sitting out the upcoming season as a transfer.

The Tigers went 20-14 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the seventh time in nine seasons under Brownell.

Texas Tech, meanwhile, continues to build a monster even with departures like former high-profile recruit.

 

 

Four-star forward Jalen Wilson asks out of Michigan letter of intent

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John Beilein isn’t the only loss Michigan sustained this week.

Jalen Wilson, a top-50 guard in 2019, has requested out of his National Letter of Intent with the Wolverines, he announced Thursday.

“Due to the sudden head coaching change, I have requested my release from The University of Michigan, and will re-open my recruitment,” he wrote on social media.

Beilein’s decision to leave Michigan for the NBA and the Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the college basketball world earlier this week, and there’s little surprise to see it shake the Wolverines’ recruiting class as the head coaching position remains vacant and Michigan conducting a search of its next coach.

Wilson, a 6-foot-8 forward, is now considering Kansas, North Carolina, Oklahoma State and Florida along with the Wolverines, according to 247Sports. The Texas native suddenly becomes one of the most desirable players left available ahead of the upcoming season.

Cole Bajema, a top-150 wing from Washington, is the lone remaining signee in Michigan’s 2019 class.

Nebraska adds former Tennessee forward Walker

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Former Tennessee forward Derrick Walker is transferring to Nebraska.

Nebraska announced Wednesday it has added Walker to its roster. Nebraska officials said Walker will sit out the 2019-20 season before playing for the Cornhuskers. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

Walker entered the NCAA transfer portal after averaging 0.8 points, 1.1 rebounds and 5.3 minutes for Tennessee this past season. The 6-foot-8 Walker averaged 1.9 points, 2.2 rebounds and 8.8 minutes as a freshman in the 2017-18 season.

Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said in a statement, “Derrick is a physical player who gives us skill and versatility in the post.”