FSU Basketball: Moving From Dennis Gates to Steve Smith

On July 26, Dennis Gates was announced as the new head coach at Cleveland State University, leaving Florida State after seven seasons as an assistant. In his wake, Leonard Hamilton and FSU have brought in Steve Smith, who was not brought back onto the Clemson staff in May as a part of the FBI’s investigation into college basketball. From an outside stance, this looks like a questionable replacement, but the timing of Gates’ departure, as well as some familiarity with Smith and the rest of the staff, left the Seminoles in a position where they didn’t have many choices and couldn’t have made a better one.

Dennis Gates and his impact on Florida State

Dennis Gates was born to coach. Leonard Hamilton even said so himself at Gates’ introductory press conference in Cleveland. This is a man who spent time last year going from practice to practice across campus seeing how other sports coached their players. Despite being only 39 years old, Gates has established himself as one of the elite minds of college basketball. He started his path towards coaching as soon as he was done playing at California, beginning as a coaching intern with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2002, and a couple of stints as a graduate assistant, first at Marquette for the 2003-04 season, followed by Florida State for the 2004-05 season. After brief stops as an assistant at California, Northern Illinois, and Nevada, Gates landed back in Tallahassee for the 2011-12 season. Florida State won the ACC Championship the first year he was there, then struggled the next few years as rule changes forced the ‘Noles out of Hamilton’s trademarked Junkyard Dog defense.

The heights we have seen the program reach in the last few seasons has a lot to do with Gates and the players he was able to bring into the program. FSU offered Jonathan Isaac long before the blue-bloods, and Isaac committed to FSU because of his relationship with coach Gates. He blossomed as a prep school player and arrived in Tallahassee as the 8th-ranked player in the 2016 class, and would go on to be the 6th overall pick in the following year’s NBA Draft. Gates was also vital in landing PJ Savoy, grad transfer David Nichols, and finding a real diamond in the rough in Mfiondu Kabengele. Gates made FSU the first major program to offer Kabengele, and it paid off with a commitment and two impressive years from Kabengele in a Seminole uniform before becoming a first-round pick in his own right.

Besides just his recruiting chops, Gates really knew how to put together a gameplan. Hamilton puts a lot of trust in his assistants with recruiting and to help come up with gameplans, and Gates always found a way to make a great gameplan. Once he had his strategy, he did a magnificent job of simplifying it and relaying it to the players in a way that they can pick it up with ease. Gates always left his door open to talk to players or go over film, and his family mentality was a great addition to the team. Steve Smith will have huge shoes to fill, but there is no reason he can’t.

How Steve Smith fits into the current staff

Steve Smith’s biggest thing going for him right now is familiarity. Clemson has been in a slightly lower standing than Florida State these past few seasons, having only one tournament appearance since 2011 (a 2018 Sweet 16 run), but getting a coach who’s familiar with how the ACC works is a huge asset. Smith was also an assistant at Georgia Southern under current FSU assistant Charlton Young. During Smith’s seasons there, Young won Southern Conference Coach of the Year and tied the school record for wins in a season, despite being under NCAA sanctions from the previous staff.

Smith is credited with being the lead recruiter on former Clemson player Donte Grantham, a top-100 recruit in 2014, who has spent time in the NBA, appearing in three games for the Oklahoma City Thunder last season. He also handled wing player development, and many of Clemson’s best players the past few seasons have been their wings: Jaron Blossomgame, KJ McDaniels, and Grantham. It’s easy to visualize him in a similar role at FSU considering coach Stan Jones is known for developing the bigs and coach Young is great with the guards. Lucky for him, FSU has an enormous amount of talent at the wing: Patrick Williams, Devin Vassell, MJ Walker, Malik Osborne, Anthony Polite, Nate Jack, Wyatt Wilkes, and RaiQuan Gray. All of these players are expected to contribute, and having a coach that has experience with these kinds of players can only be helpful.

Finally, everywhere Smith has gone, defense has followed. In his second season with Clemson, the team finished top-10 nationally in both scoring defense and blocks per game; in the 2011-12 season at Georgia Southern, the Eagles finished top-100 in points allowed and top 50 in opponent 3-point percentage. Hamilton’s squads are known for their defense and having another defensive-minded assistant is important to him.

Clemson choosing to not bring Smith back does naturally raise eyebrows, especially when it’s connected to the FBI scandal. On the wiretap, he allegedly said he could sweep payment to Zion Williamson under the rug and “keep everything tight” as their football program does, but there is nothing to suggest he did anything besides make this suggestion. There is no knowledge of him (or a shoe company) paying a Clemson basketball player. Hamilton wouldn’t have brought him on staff if he wasn’t comfortable with him and his parting ways with Clemson.

Coach Gates is going to be missed throughout the team, but he will do a phenomenal job at Cleveland State, and we wish him all the best. Welcome to Florida State Steve Smith!

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