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November 4, 2009

Florida's Boynton makes his point early

This is part of our series on freshmen who must make a big impact next season for their teams to challenge for league titles and get to the NCAA tournament.

Nick Calathes' decision to leave school after his sophomore season to launch a pro career in Greece might have thrown much of Florida's fan base for a loop, but the move didn't surprise at least one interested observer.

Kenny Boynton had been preparing for that precise possibility.

Boynton, a 6-foot-2 freshman guard, developed into the No. 12 prospect in the 2009 recruiting class because of his scoring ability. However, he also worked on his playmaking and ballhandling skills throughout the past year.

Just in case Calathes decided to turn pro early and left Florida searching for a point guard, the Gators' prize recruit wanted to be ready. Boynton now believes he's capable of contributing at either guard spot for a team desperately thin in the backcourt.

"I knew if Nick stayed, it would take the pressure off me because he's a good ballhandler and dominates the ball," Boynton said. "But at the same time, I worked on my dribbling skills just in case he didn't come back."

The Gators can only hope Boynton shows similar foresight with the ball in his hands. Perhaps no freshman in the country faces a greater responsibility this season.

Though he hasn't played a regular-season game, Boynton already looks like the Gator most capable of replacing the production of Calathes, who led the team in scoring (17.2 points per game) last season.

But the Gators need him to develop into more than a scorer. Boynton, a natural shooting guard, also must help run Florida's offense. Calathes' departure leaves sophomore Erving Walker as the Gators' only pure point guard, so Boynton will have to play the point at least on occasion.

"For Florida to be good this year, he's going to have to have a great season," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "He's going to be counted on to handle the ball, to defend at a high level and also to do what he does best, and that's score a lot of points. I imagine he's going to log major minutes and be the go-to guy."

Boynton relishes the challenge.

He gave Florida fans a hint of what's to come by scoring 22 points Monday in a 95-46 exhibition victory over Division II Saint Leo. That figures to be the first of many games in which Boynton leads the Gators in scoring.

"I feel like in a way I do need to produce to help the team have success this year," Boynton said. "I'm just basically going to do what Coach [Billy Donovan] tells me to do."

Boynton could be asked to do quite a bit.

He graduated from Plantation (Fla.) American Heritage as the third-leading scorer in Florida high school history, behind Teddy Dupay and Chris Corchiani. He is the highest-ranked prospect to sign with the Gators since Rivals.com began covering college basketball recruiting in 2003.

"[He's a] huge talent, really good player," junior forward Chandler Parsons said. "He's going to come in here and really help us out a lot. He can really shoot the ball and really score, and then he has the potential to be a really good defender. He has a lot of parts to his game that can help us out at his position."

All that acclaim apparently hasn't gone to Boynton's head. Donovan raves about the way Boynton has blended in with his new teammates.

"For a kid who's been highly exposed as he has, he's come in with an unbelievable level of humility," Donovan said. "Sometimes when you get these guys with huge reputations, they come in with an attitude and an air about them that they've got it all figured out, they have all the answers and they think they're better than everybody else. He has been anything but that. He's been a great teammate. He's made the chemistry on our team better. Guys on our team like him."

Florida's Kenny Boynton is one of numerous highly touted freshman guards entering the SEC this season as the league attempts to bounce back from a season in which it only earned three NCAA tournament bids. Here's a look at SEC freshman guards who were ranked among the top 40 prospects in the 2009 recruiting class:
PlayerRankHigh SchoolCollege
John Wall1Raleigh (N.C.) Word of GodKentucky
Kenny Boynton12Plantation (Fla.) American HeritageFlorida
John Jenkins15Gallatin (Tenn.) Station CampVanderbilt
Eric Bledsoe23Birmingham (Ala.) ParkerKentucky
Jon Hood40Madisonville (Ky.) NorthKentucky
Perhaps it helped that Boynton received a bit of a reality check before he arrived on campus. Boynton and Pittsburgh forward Dante Taylor were the only incoming freshmen to try out this summer for the U.S. under-19 team that went on to win the gold medal at the FIB World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand.

The tryout represented an eye-opening experience for Boynton, who didn't make the team.

"I realized how fast college was and how big everybody was," Boynton said. "I had to learn how to play more 'help defense.' I could tell those guys were already used to it, but I hadn't done it. If I get the chance, I'd go back again. I definitely liked it. They push you. I do everything now 10 times better than I did last summer."

Boynton's scoring ability made him an ideal candidate for the tryouts. He averaged 33 points per game and shot 58 percent from two-point range his senior year at American Heritage. Boynton once scored 61 points in a high school game.

"He's a great off-the-dribble, pull-up jump shooter, and he does it with range, too," Meyer said. "He loves to pull up for 3-point shots. He's a fearless shooter. He does attack the rim some, but he's not an over-the-rim type of player. What he does best is pull up and shoot over the defender. He gets defenders on their heels and shoots over them."

Nobody questions Boynton's potential as a scorer. Boynton showed his long-range accuracy Monday by going 5-for-9 from 3-point range against Saint Leo.

The concern is whether Boynton is ready to run the offense against SEC-caliber competition. Boynton acknowledges he is most comfortable as a shooting guard, but Florida's lack of depth in the backcourt will force him to play both guard spots.

Florida's hopes of returning to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence could depend on how well he makes that transition.

"He's not a savior," Donovan said. "He's one guy, and he's a freshman. ... I'm not going in as a coach, putting all this emphasis on him to step up and [say], 'He has to do this, this and this for us to be productive.' He's a good player. He's going to be a good player here, and I have no doubts about that. But this expectation that he's going to be this total impact guy would be totally unfair to him."

Boynton has spent the preseason trying to become a better point guard. When Boynton and Walker are playing on the same team in a scrimmage, each player gets some time at point guard and some at shooting guard. When they're on opposite teams, Boynton will play point guard the entire way. Boynton said he has learned plenty from Walker, Donovan and assistant coach Rob Lanier.

"I feel like my decision-making has improved," Boynton said. "That's the big thing. ... A person can be open for a second, and you have to get the ball there. You have to be aware of everybody on the court and where everybody is."

When Boynton looks out on the court, he likes what he sees.

Boynton said Walker already has impressed him with his shooting ability and all-around performance. He thinks Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin is about to live up to the acclaim that made him a top-40 prospect. And Boynton believes teammates Parsons and Alex Tyus are underrated.

Boynton frankly considers his entire team underrated. He was surprised to find preseason prognostications that had Florida finishing fifth in the SEC East.

"I think we'll definitely be in the tournament this year for sure," Boynton said.

Boynton correctly forecast that Calathes might leave school after the 2008-09 season. Florida fans can only hope his latest prediction is equally accurate.

(Adam Gorney of GatorBait.net contributed to this report).

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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