FSU Basketball 2019 Season Preview – The Returners

Welcome back to NoleGameday’s season preview of the 2019/20 season for the Florida State Men’s Basketball team. Last week we covered the newcomers, this week we cover the returning players.

With 5 weeks until the first exhibition game, many are wondering how Florida State can replace 3 starters and 3 other key contributors. Trent Forrest and MJ Walker started the majority of games last year, and RaiQuan Gray started in the NCAA Tournament games in place of Phil Cofer. Besides those 3, no other player on the roster has started a game in a Florida State uniform. Losing that much experience can hurt, but because Coach Hamilton is so keen on playing as many players as possible, there is still a large amount of experience throughout the roster.

Trent Forrest

Senior; 2018/19 stats: 9.3 PPG, 3.7 APG, 4.5 RPG

Forrest is the unquestioned leader for this year’s team. Last season, the team had 5 seniors, 4 that had spent at least 3 seasons in Tallahassee. Forrest, meanwhile, is the lone member of the 2016 recruiting class that has stayed in Tallahassee for all 4 years. His impact on the game is unmistakable: he’s in passing lanes, he’s pestering ball-handlers, he steadies the offense when they get out of control, he’s a great passer, and has become the Seminoles’ go-to closer in the past year and a half.

His biggest downfall has been his own body. His sophomore year, he suffered a knee sprain in the preseason that kept him sidelined for the first couple of games that season, and he wasn’t quite back to full strength until ACC play. By the time the NCAA Tournament rolled around, he was unstoppable. Many would consider him the most important player during that 2018 Elite Eight run, and I would agree. Every time he was on the floor, good things happened. Despite his close relationship with CJ Walker, Walker transferred out following the season, partially (to some people) because of how well Forrest had played.

Primed for a breakout junior season, Forrest would hurt his toe in just the sixth game of the season. Despite not missing any games for it (and actually hitting a game-winner the game after injuring the toe), it was an issue that lingered throughout the season. It was easy to see he didn’t have his same burst off that foot, and his practice time was limited to prevent further damage to the toe. He would still go on to have some incredible outings: 23 points and 8 rebounds against Southeast Missouri State, 19 points and 9 rebounds against Pittsburgh, 15 points and 5 steals against Louisville, 10 assists and 3 steals against Syracuse, and a 20 point, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals game in the closer against Gonzaga.

His scoring is vastly underrated, in fact, it almost seems like he’d prefer not to score and let his teammates get the buckets instead. He does a perfect job of playing to the system and doing what is required of him. If it requires him putting his head down and scoring 20, he’ll do that. If the gameplan requires him to get 10 assists, he’ll do that too. He has improved a facet of his game every year on campus. His sophomore year he became a better passer, last year he became a much improved free-throw shooter, and I’m predicting him to have a much improved year shooting the ball from 3, including better form and less hesitation. His shooting the ball brings good results to the offense, even if he’s not making them consistently. It gives the bigs a chance at an offensive rebound and showing a willingness to shoot will force the defense to guard him further out.

M.J. Walker

Junior; 2018/19 stats: 7.5 PPG, 1.6 APG, 2.2 RPG

M.J. Walker is such an extremely difficult player to get a gauge on. On one hand, he’s a freak athlete and an absolute dog on the defensive end. On the other, he’s an inconsistent shooter and ball-handler and has a reputation from fans as a shot-chucker. Walker can be a great shooter, and when he’s on his game there are few shooters better. But he’s not on his game very often. He shot 32% from 3 last year after shooting 34.5% as a freshman but took about as many shots each year. Despite his bump up to the starting lineup and an increase in minutes, his numbers across the board stayed about the same. His freshman season stats were 7.0 PPG, 1.1 APG, 1.7 RPG. Steals and blocks only saw the most marginalistic improvements as well.

For him to take that next step, he has to become a better ball handler. He posted an estimated turnover percentage of 19.5% last season, meaning he turned the ball over 1 out of every 5 possessions. That’s horrific. He doesn’t need to be John Stockton out there, he just needs to be more careful and more balanced. Taking better care of the ball will increase his confidence and more shots will start to fall for him. He’s one of those momentum players, if he’s in a slump, he might stay in that slump for a while. If he’s rolling, he’s unstoppable. To me, he’s very J.R. Smith-esque. Smith never had as high of a turnover percentage, but he was an above-average shooter who would break out for crazy games from behind the arc every so often. Last season from 3, Walker was 5 for 9 against LSU, 3 for 4 against Canisius, 6 for 7 against Miami, and 3 for 6 against Syracuse. The shooting ability is there, his consistency just has to improve.

Now let’s talk about what he’s already great at; defense. There is no player on this roster more likely to dive on a loose ball than MJ Walker. He ends up on the ground two or three times a game going after loose balls, and that junkyard dog mentality is something Coach Hamilton really likes in him. Of all returning players, Walker is second in defensive win shares (an estimate of wins added based on a player’s defense) behind only Trent Forrest. He is willing to do all the dirty work on the defensive end. Towards the end of last season, he started guarding the opposing team’s primary ballhandler as a way to give Forrest a little bit of a break defensively, and Walker did very well. He is not going to get beat 1-on-1 very often, if at all, just because of how athletic he is. He was a top 25 recruit in basketball and had offers from Clemson, Michigan, and Florida to play wide receiver. His athleticism allows him to fly around the court and get into passing lanes creating steals, his awareness just lacks from time to time.

With the top 2 leading scorers from last season gone, the coaches will be expecting a big jump from Walker.

RaiQuan “Turk” Gray

RS-Sophomore; 2018/19 stats: 3.9 PPG, 0.8 APG, 2.4 RPG

Coach Hamilton loves Turk’s potential, and it’s not hard to see why. Turk may be the second-best ball-handler on the team behind Forrest, and that is important in this scheme. If a player can grab a rebound and immediately bust out on a fastbreak without having to look for the point guard, Coach Hamilton is happy. Gray has spent the last two seasons working on slimming down; he showed up on campus close to 300 pounds and is now listed at 260 pounds. Hamilton has never had a player quite like Gray. He is not the best athlete or best shooter, but the ball handling at his size is tantalizing.

What may be surprising about Gray is his defensive ability. With his size and ball-handling ability, many compare him to Draymond Green, he’s just not as loud or as crafty on defense. His defensive metrics are really good though: 3rd in returning players for defensive win shares, 2nd in defensive box plus/minus, and 1st in steal percentage. Gray is another player who is just going to put his head down and get to work. He won’t make many splashy plays, he won’t get really amped up, but he’s going to be an extremely consistent player on both ends of the floor.

The two improvements he needs to make are really easy to fix: being more aggressive (particularly as a rebounder) and being a better shooter. Against Murray State in the NCAA tournament, Gray was 3 for 4 from behind the arc, yet only attempted 32 3-pointers all season. His willingness and ability to shoot from 3 is going to be a major watching point for this team. His rebounding is another major watching point. He’s not a vertical player so it’s not surprising his rebounding numbers are so low, but at his size, he’s really going to need those rebounding numbers to rise.

Devin Vassell

Sophomore; 2018/19 stats: 4.5 PPG, 0.6 APG, 1.5 RPG

Forget stats, this man is a stud. He didn’t see much playing time, but when he did he just made plays. Then as he started learning the system more, he started getting more playing time. And he made the most of it. He’s going to be the Terance Mann replacement in terms of splash plays to get the crowd going. I mean he’s already done this:

And how can anyone forget his doing this as a true freshman:

Some players just have that “it” factor and no one has it more than Vassell. Many expected him to redshirt this season after being a low-rated recruit, but he practiced his way into not being redshirted, then played his way into a prominent bench role, and kept playing so well he was a part of late-game lineups. He is already an elite shooter, shooting an insane 41.9% from 3 last season, easily the best on the team, and no returning player is within 9%. Of returning players, Vassell was 1st in box plus/minus (which is per 100 possessions, so playing time doesn’t matter), 1st in offensive plus/minus, 3rd in defensive plus/minus, 2nd in win shares (absurd considering his limited playing time to start the season), 1st in Player Efficiency Rating, 1st in True Shooting Percentage, 1st in Effective Field Goal Percentage, and had the 2nd highest usage rate.

Vassell is a Jeremy Lamb clone; lanky arms, great shooting ability, and elite athleticism. He had a Zion Williamson-esque block in the tournament against Murray State, and his long arms allow him to shoot over players right in his face, as shown in the 3 to force OT against Virginia Tech above. The only concern for him is durability with his size and keeping that production over an entire season in a more prominent role. He will most likely be the 6th man like Forrest had been before last season; if the offense starts getting stagnant, Hamilton will probably look to him to provide instant offense.

Anthony Polite

Redshirt-Sophomore; 2018/19 stats: 2.7 PPG, 0.6 APG, 1.6 RPG

With the rise in playing time for Vassell saw the fall in playing time for Anthony Polite. After averaging 14 minutes per game through nonconference play, Polite would only cross double digits played three times after that: 15 in a blowout against Virginia, 11 in another blowout against Wake Forest, and 14 in yet another blowout against Murray State. Somewhere along the lines, the coaches just stopped having faith in him last season, but he can be a solid player for this team. He’s got a very smooth shooting stroke and was recruited by a lot of programs to play point guard, so the ball-handling ability is there too. He’s got the size and length to be a great defender, he just has to go out and prove it. There is playing time available at the backup point guard spot, so if he can show more consistency, he will get more minutes.

His last season stats are to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s hard to get into a rhythm when you’re on the bench most of the game and being asked to put up shots in garbage time. Polite’s highest-scoring output on the season was 9 against Canisius but played his most minutes against Villanova. It is extremely unlikely he is anywhere near his abysmal 3-point percentage of 23.9% from last season.  In fact, I would almost expect a 10% increase there, which might seem a little outrageous, but he’s got that kind of shooting ability.

Wyatt Wilkes

Junior; 2018/19 stats: 1.5 PPG, 0.1 APG, 0.7 RPG

I honestly thought Wilkes had received a redshirt for his freshman season, and it’s curious he didn’t. According to College Basketball-Reference, he only played in 6 games as a freshman, and the limit to redshirt is 10. He’s only played a total of 101 minutes and two seasons, again a curious decision because he was an incredible shooter in high school. On teams that have needed his shooting ability, it is really surprising he didn’t play more. He’s not a great athlete, and defensively he can look a little lost, but on offense, he’s shown he has a great knowledge of where his teammates are on the floor and a sneaky good passing ability.

This is a make or break season for Wilkes. As a junior, he is going to expect more playing time and can play either forward position. If he doesn’t get the playing time he expects, it wouldn’t be that surprising to see him transfer. He held offers from Butler and Creighton (teams he would be really good fits with) as well as Clemson and Missouri. There is interest in a player of his abilities, so it will be interesting to see what his minutes look like.

Malik Osborne

Redshirt-sophomore; 2017/18 stats: 9.0 PPG, 0.8 APG, 6.5 RPG

Osborne redshirted last season after transferring in from Rice. He is an above the rim athlete who wants to shoot the ball more, and I expect him to play a ton of minutes this season. For an in-depth breakdown of Osborne, check out our article on him from a few weeks ago by clicking HERE.

The Walk-ons

The walk-ons play a big role in helping the team prepare for their upcoming opponent. They are all smart players and have little jobs during the game by helping players at their position by telling them what they’re seeing from the bench.

Harrison Prieto

Prieto is the only one that has received non-garbage time minutes, which usually came when FSU’s other big men were in trouble. He’s a solid rebounder but fouled a lot in his playing time last year.

Justin Lindner

Lindner is a good player for a walk-on and has a great passing ability. He could be a scholarship player at a lower Division-1 school.

Travis Light

A skinny sniper, Light is a really good shooter and attended prep school with Jonathan Isaac.

Will Miles

Miles is the 4th member of his family to play basketball for Florida State and got his first career point last season in a game against Wake Forest.

Ty Hands

Hands suffered a torn ACL last August, so we never got to see him on the floor. His father, Lorenzo, was a member of the 1993 FSU Basketball team that went to the Elite 8.

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