March 25, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla.- One of the great benefits of postseason basketball, or any sport for that matter, is the opportunity it provides for younger players to gain experience in a completely different setting.
Florida State's run to the quarterfinal round of the National Invitation Tournament, which continues Wednesday night at the Donald L. Tucker Center against Louisiana Tech (7 p.m., ESPN), could reap great benefits for a Seminole team that will return six of its top nine scholarship players next season.
While senior standouts Okaro White and Ian Miller and sophomore scoring leader Aaron Thomas were instrumental in Monday night's 101-90 win at home against Georgetown, the play of sophomore point guard Devon Bookert- through the first two NIT games - may be one of the most encouraging signs of all.
Bookert scored a career-high 21 points and matched his career-best with nine assists against the Hoyas in what was arguably the finest big-game performance of his career. The Anchorage, Alaska native converted 4 of 5 field goal attempts - 3 of 3 from beyond the 3-point arc - and knocked down 10 of 12 free throws. He finished stuffing his stat line with five rebounds and a pair of steals, while logging a career-high 37 minutes.
FSU coach Leonard Hamiltonwasn't the least bit surprised to see Bookert, who has started both NIT games after coming off the bench in the six previous games, step up to the plate.
"I'm not overly opinionated over what I saw him do last night [against Georgetown], because I've seen him over a period of time making that transition," Hamilton said. "He's becoming more vocal. He's communicating with his teammates. He's more engaged. He's more motivated. He's communicating with his coaches, asking questions. That has manifest itself into a certain level of confidence, so that once you go into the game you have a different swagger, a different body language. It's obvious that he's comfortable and he's in control; that he's also in control of his emotions.
"The fact that you're in the postseason, playing in a tournament, has heightened his awareness. I think it shows he's growing up."
More importantly, the Seminoles are continuing to show signs of growth, having put the disappointment of an NCAA Tournament snub behind them. A victory Wednesday night against Louisiana Tech will send FSU on to New York City and Madison Square Garden for the semifinals; a place the program has not been since 1997.
Bookert's understated personality may be more befitting of the Northern Lights, as opposed to the bright lights of Manhattan, but it's clear he and his teammates are on a mission to make the most of this postseason run.
"I think we're all growing as a team," Booker said. "That sense of urgency has given us a narrower focus - a tunnel-vision - trying to get us our goals. Everyone is growing as a group."
With a laser-like focus through the first two tournament games Bookert has been producing in a variety of ways for an FSU team which has won six of its last eight games. Despite managing three points in a then season-high 36 minutes against Florida Gulf Coast, he matched his season-high with eight rebounds and carried the burden of directing the offense in Miller's absence due to injury.
Not only was Booker on-point offensively against the Hoyas, he served as a calming influence on several occasions in a tension-filled game, often corralling his teammates at the free throw line to settle things down. Offensively, he found his shots - and his teammates - in the flow of the game; yet another sign of his continued growth.
Though quick to credit his progress to the FSU coaching staff and his teammates, there is little doubt that Booker has put in the work to become a more complete player as a sophomore. And while he insists he doesn't feel any differently than he did by the end of his freshman season, there is mounting evidence that he is much further along in reaching his potential as quality lead guard in a major program.
"Last year I was more searching and just trying to do my role on the team," Bookert said. "Everyone is still doing that, but we've got a bunch of people that can go off on any single night, so the person that's open should be the go-to man. ...
"Everyone has been encouraging each other to step up and lead, and follow, at times and to do whatever is best for the team. I think we've all grown us a group and see whatever our team needs at one time."
Through 34 games Bookert is averaging 8.3 points while shooting 42.1 percent from both the floor and from 3-point range, and 87.8 percent from the free throw line. His 97 assists lead the team, while his 38 steals trail only Aaron Thomas.
"The thing you have to understand about Devon is he's in the process of developing," said Hamilton. "When a guy puts a jersey on, he has a number and he's on the floor, people sometimes assume that he is a finished product. Devon came from Alaska, where basketball is not the main sport, and obviously the competition is not anywhere close to the level that he's playing against now.
"His progress, his understanding of the game, is in direct proportion to what he's been exposed to. So he's still growing and learning. He's a smart youngster, but he still has a lot of upside available for him to continue to grow."
Upside aside, Bookert is currently FSU's all-time leader in 3-point field goal percentage, having knocked down 46.2 percent of his attempts (72 of 156) from beyond the arc. And over the last seven games he's on a roll, converting 12 of 16 3-point attempts.
Bookert has also demonstrated maturity beyond in his years down the stretch this season. After starting the first 21 games of the season, he has been in and out of the starting lineup as Hamilton has been adjusting his rotation, in part of our necessity due to injury. The soft-spoken guard has been unfazed by the changes.
"I'm very proud of his attitude," Hamilton said. "Even when he's not been playing well his attitude has been so good. He's been eager to learn. He's been so coachable. He's growing more in his confidence. He's being more vocal and being more aggressive in terms of his leadership. I see a bunch of guys growing up right before your eyes."
That Bookert and the `Noles are doing it in a single-elimination tournament is even more impressive.
"There's a different mental and emotional frame of mind that you have to be in when you're playing for a championship," Hamilton said. "You're in a tournament and your preparation is different. You're playing against guys you're not familiar with. If you lose a game, you're out. There's a different mindset - I don't know if you call it pressure - but a sense of urgency that exists.
"As you prepare, in the back of your mind, you're thinking, `We have a chance to win a championship.' But you've got to take it one game at a time and you realize now, that to win a championship against other good teams who have the same goals, you have to all be together. ... That's growing. That's maturing. That's giving them an idea of what it's like to be in this situation, which can't do anything but benefit them as they move through their careers."