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Injuries, growing pains impacting FSU’s development

The looks are good ones. High-percentage shots, driving layups and opportunities in the paint. They were also far too often misses.

Florida State’s official stats recorded 12 misses that it considered layups or around-the-basket shots in Saturday’s 68-60 loss to Wake Forest. The Seminoles’ first-half output was dreadful, shooting just 7 of 34 (20.6 percent) but it was underscored by how many point-blank shots were missed.

“When you are a first-year player in a system in the ACC, that creates a very anxious moment for you,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “But now, in February, I think this should be, ‘I’m excited. I’m stepping up to the challenge. I should be a little bit more confident because now I have an opportunity to go out and show what I’m capable of doing.’ And I’m hopeful that’s where we are mentally.

“At this particular point, we have to be positive, patient, motivating, inspiring. We hold those guys accountable for what we know they are capable of doing. And this is a great teaching moment for us to have these adjustments.”

FSU (13-9, 6-6 ACC) is without three of its rotational players, all of whom have had surgery — Guard Anthony Polite, forward Malik Osborne and center Naheem McLeod. Hamilton has indicated Osborne is out for the season, while Polite and McLeod could return in March.

Few teams in college basketball can function after losing three key pieces of the rotation. Teams like Syracuse and Miami have often played FSU and used just an eight-man rotation. The Seminoles have the luxury of depth but it’s often inexperienced, especially in ACC play, and injuries have limited options. They are functioning but struggling, dropping four straight games as rotations have adjusted dramatically. 

FSU coaches faced the prospect of playing Wake without two of its big men in Osborne and McLeod and then lost forward John Butler Jr. (turned ankle) in the first half. Walk-on Harrison Prieto played a career-high 25 minutes, the adjustments continued and FSU played far better in the second half but still fell short in its comeback attempt.

A learning experience for FSU’s newcomers

It’s not ideal to play freshman Matthew Cleveland for 38 minutes against Wake Forest. Or freshman Jalen Warley to play 33 minutes vs. Virginia Tech. Or even Caleb Mills for 29 minutes against the Demon Deacons as he is building energy back from tonsillitis. But that has often been the situation as newcomers have been pushed into playing significant minutes.

“We watch the film and we see where we falter,” Hamilton said. “I think that’s a learning experience. They maybe might not be quite as experienced, but I also think that that’s part of the process. You learn from your shortcomings and then you are able to focus more and you realize that this responsibility is yours and you need to fulfill your part, your ability to contribute. That’s where we are, but I expect them to be better.

“Some guys adjust to those moments better than others. But I think that’s who we are now. Guys got to accept those roles, and mentally prepare themselves to go ahead and execute those little things a lot better.”

An FSU cornerstone has been depth but even that has been challenged. Beyond the injuries to Polite, Osborne and McLeod, Hamilton said he is hopeful that Fletcher and Butler Jr. will be able to play on Wednesday against Pittsburgh (9 p.m. on ACC Network) but he also considers both to be game-time decisions. That makes FSU’s game against the Panthers — one of the league’s worst teams at 8-16, 3-10 ACC — all the more difficult in what would otherwise be not nearly be as competitive.

FSU will use the transfer portal more 

The Seminoles’ roster features Mills (transfer from Houston), Fletcher (transfer from Kentucky) and McLeod (transfer from Chipola College). In past years the Seminoles have also landed grad transfers but Hamilton said their philosophies on player development are evolving.

“We didn’t expect to be in this situation,” Hamilton said. “I expected to have Balsa (Koprivica) and RaiQuan Gray as part of this scenario that would give us that leadership. And I thought both of them were potentially all-ACC players. But that’s the world we live in now. And some teams find out. They adjust by going to the portal and getting older, more mature players. That’s maybe something that, an area where we didn’t concentrate on. We’re still building our program within the high school ranks and we think that’s the right way to go. But new day, new time, new circumstances. Maybe we have to join the church. We might have to join the party and start adjusting as well.”

Koprivica’s departure after two years at FSU was unexpected, although Gray took a redshirt early in his career and graduated in April 2021 before being drafted in the second round by the Brooklyn Nets last summer. Gray is playing in the NBA’s developmental G League, while Koprivica is playing in Europe.

FSU’s roster will see considerable turnover in the offseason as Osborne, Polite, RayQuan Evans, Wyatt Wilkes, Tanor Ngom and Justin Lindner are all seniors (Lindner was put on scholarship before the season). They all could move on but might have the chance to play another season due to the NCAA’s decision to give players a year back due to COVID. (All but Ngom has a bachelor’s degree, and he is on track to graduate in April.) Another center, Quincy Ballard, hasn’t seen much time on the court and could opt to stay and develop or move on from FSU.

If Hamilton and the staff can keep a young nucleus together, the Seminoles would welcome back Cleveland, Butler, Warley, Mills and Fletcher. The players have a chance to grow in year 2 at FSU, gaining comfort in the experience gained but also understanding the expectations of what’s needed to win in the ACC. But Hamilton also knows hitting the transfer portal is critical to match up well against other ACC schools that are replacing experience with experience via the portal. Wake Forest has made its run this season in large part by adding five transfers.

“Every school in the league has taken advantage of the new transfer rules,” Hamilton said. “We kind of dibble and dabble in there but I think that as we move forward in the future we’re gonna try to be a little more creative like some of the teams in our league.”