ATLANTA — Billy Donovan doesn’t do a lot of Gator clubs. Only two a year. When he does do them, however, the fans eat it up.
Take Monday night, for example.
Donovan’s first of two summer tour stops was at the Cobb Galleria Centre, site of the Atlanta Gator Club gathering, where a standing ovation awaited. The last time he played to this many Florida fans in this city, the Gators were beating Kentucky for a third time in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game about 10 miles away at the Georgia Dome and putting the wraps on an unprecedented 21-0 record against league foes.
The people remembered.
"Thank you, Billy, for everything you’ve done for us."
"The NBA is overrated. The college game needs you. We need you."
"Best coach in the country!"
Donovan made some opening remarks, thanking the club for their scholarship endowments. He spoke with reverance about the season past. He mentioned the disappointment in the season-ending knee injury to junior guard DeVon Walker last month. And of that amazing 2014 senior class, Donovan said he was surprised center Patric Young did not get drafted, but believed Young would get a chance to play an entire NBA season with the New Orleans Pelicans after signing as a free agent. Point guard and SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin signed with a professional team in Australia and was scheduled to leave Wednesday, he added.
And, of course, he had some quick comments on the 2014-15 team, which figures to be headlined by junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith and junior shooting guard Michael Frazier, and also look for bigger things from sophomore point guard Kasey Hill.
"We’ve got some really good pieces, but we have a lot of unproven pieces who are going to be in different roles, and that’s going to be a big thing for our season. How are these guys going to handle stepping into primary roles when most of their careers have been filled with inconsistencies?" Donovan asked. "Can they come together and become a consistent team. That’s why we were so good last year. We were consistent every game. You don’t win 30 games in a row if you’re not."
That statement drew a big round of applause.
The bulk of Donovan’s 40 minutes at the podium was spent answering questions from the 200-plus in attendance. Below are some excerpted highlights of his chat.
[Worth noting: Donovan’s other club stop will be Aug. 26 at the Southwest Florida Gator Club in Fort Myers.]
On the development of sophomore center Chris Walker: "He’s doing much better. The one thing I really admired about Chris Walker last year; he was highly decorated, highly exposed, very anticipated when he finally gets eligible to play. But I knew as a coach he wasn’t remotely close to being ready to play. Everybody wanted to see him play, but he never handled it any other way than an unbelievable emphasis on putting the team first. I really respect him for that. You could see a player like that coming in and complaining about not playing, but he knew he had a lot to learn. He’s put on 20 pounds, but the thing is — like Kasey Hill — can he go now from a guy who when things weren’t going well we took him out of the game, to a guy who is stepping into a much bigger role? He’s bigger and still has a lot of basketball growth ahead of him, but that’s expected."
On the progress of guard Eli Carter, who sat out last season as a medical redshirt (recovering from a broken leg) after transferring from Rutgers: "He’s much, much better than he was a year ago, but he’s not the same player that he was at Rutgers. He’s going to have to play his way back. Right now, we’re trying to get his leg stronger. It was a really difficult injury. It’s fully healed, but there is some dysfunction there. We’re hoping we can get that back. We don’t know right now whether he can be an everyday guy at practice. That’s the biggest question mark. He’s doing really, really well. But can he practice and play every single day on a regular basis? That’s what we have to see. And we’re probably not going to find that out until October."
On rumblings that the NCAA — and NBA — could go to a two-year minimum requirement for basketball players: "I think we’re moving that way. I just hope there is some protection for the institutions because it is very very difficult when you have a guy, for example, let’s take [Kansas stars] Andrew Wiggins [No. 1 pick in 2014 NBA Draft]. Or [Kansas center] Joel Embiid [No. 3 pick]. Let’s say one of those guys went back to school. A guy like Embiid is dealing with some back injuries and now some foot surgeries, and they’re bypassing that kind of money. Well, now you’ve got agents all over the place trying to position themselves and get these guys to sign. You’re trying to deal with coaching your team and those guys playing.
"There are a lot of distractions that come into place when high-profile guys have to stay in school. I’ve always been a big believer that if they can go out [into the NBA] from high school, let ’em go out. Now, I also think, from the NBA’s perspective, it’s much better for the NBA — for the organizations and coaches — for a player to stay in college for two years to develop and grow and mature and learn. [NBA execs and coaches] don’t know what they’re dealing with when these guys come out of high school they’re not equipped to handle everything put to them.
"There’s got to be something for us, as coaches, that address these distractions. Those are real, real vulnerable situations you’re putting guys into. After games, they’re tempted with this and that — ‘Hey, let’s go to dinner.’ Or, ‘Hey, I’ll get you this.’ — and they’re put in a position all the time to have to say ‘No, no, no and no.’ It gets hard after a while. There’s got to be something to protect the kid and protect the institution."
On his instructions to the team as far as keeping social media in check: "I had an NBA team tell me a story. They took a player — and I’m not going to to say his name because I don’t want to embarrass him, but he was a very, very high-profile player that was drafted very high. In their background research, they went into his Twitter account, but they weren’t interested in what he was posting. They know these guys are warned about putting stuff up on social media. No, this team was interested in the 10 or so people this player was socializing with, so they wanted to to do background checks on all those people. So, yes, we talk about social media. Anything they put out there should be a positive reflection of themselves, their teammates, the University of Florida and their friends.
"Do they make the right decisions all the time? No. Personally, I don’t get the whole Twitter thing, but it’s another way so much has changed. Our guys love it. It’s how they communicate. I never thought it was all that interesting to say, ‘I’m at McDonald’s eating a hamburger,’ but we monitor it and we monitor who they’re letting in. Same with Facebook. A lot of times, you can be guilty by association."
On which 2014-15 player or players will assume leadership roles, given the loss of the four seniors: "I think that’s going to be really hard for us. I think Michael Frazier would like to do it. Whether he’s equipped to do it, I really don’t know. We had four seniors who were older and naturally stepped into that. We need some guys to step into those roles, but I really don’t know who those guys are going to be."
On his players consistently showing improvement, during their UF years and on to the NBA: "When they come in, you have to change their thought process and how they view things. Casey Prather, for example, he comes in and does three or four things very well. But he’s convinced the only way to prove he is an NBA player is to shoot 3-point shots — but shooting is the worst thing about his game. He wants to focus on the worst part of his game. There’s a balance of getting them to understand what goes into winning. That’s the biggest thing. When you talk about guys going to the NBA, they’re going up there to play and be paid, and those people are paying them to win, not lose.
"They need to understand the value of winning, what goes into winning, how to win and how to impact winning. Once they start to view the game from a winning perspective — instead of a statistical perspective — that’s when you start to see real growth and things start to happen. That’s when you see things that don’t show up in the stat sheet. A guy like Udonis Haslem with the [Miami] Heat. He makes plays that go into winning. You see a guy like Mike Miller. Lebron James wanted Mike Miller to come with him to Cleveland because from their time together in Miami, Lebron understands that Mike knows what goes into winning and how to go about winning.
"When guys can impact the game through winning and their own personal gain gets better, that’s when you see guys grow. Like a Joakim Noah. He’s all about winning. I’ve been fortunate to have guys who wanted to be taught and coached and helped in that area. They all want to play in the NBA, but a lot of times the road they think they need to take to get there is off base. It’s whether or not they buy into what they have to do. Prather is a good example. He finally learned to play to his strengths and was one of the leading scorers in the SEC … and we were a much, much better team and won a lot more games because of it."