One on One with Chris Dortch: Vernon Macklin
Florida coach Billy Donovan knows it as well as anyone: To make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, controlling the paint is imperative.
“You’ve got to have someone you can throw the ball inside to, and you’ve got to have somebody that can beat guys off the dribble,” Donovan said. “You’ve got to attack the paint.”
When Donovan led the Gators to consecutive national championships in 2006-07, he did so on the backs of, as he put it, “two monsters at the blocks.” The monsters in question, Joakim Noah and Al Horford, combined to make 738-of-1,205 shots (.612) grab 1,270 rebounds and block 305 shots in those two historic seasons. When both left with a year of eligibility remaining and became lottery picks in the ’07 NBA draft, Florida took a few steps backward as a program.
After two consecutive NIT trips and a first-round flameout in the NCAA Tournament last season, the Gators are only now returning to a level where they could think about surviving deep into March. It’s no surprise that Florida once again has talent in the low post.
“Obviously, [Noah and Horford] were at a different level,” Donovan said. “This team, I don’t think, talent-wise, we have first-round draft picks. Maybe we do, but certainly, coming into the [2007 NCAA] tournament, it was pretty understood those guys were going to be lottery picks. We don’t have lottery picks, but we’ve got a really good team that I think has developed.”
The Gators’ return to form can perhaps best be exemplified by Vernon Macklin, the 6-10 senior who was packing some serious self-esteem issues when he transferred to Florida two years ago. A former McDonald’s All-American, Macklin began his career at Georgetown, where, playing behind future NBA draft picks Jeff Green and Roy Hibbert, he averaged 3.2 points and 1.8 rebounds his first two seasons.
Citing a lack of playing time and problems embracing the Princeton offense run by Hoya coach John Thompson III, Macklin thought a change of scenery was in order. Florida proved to be his salvation as a player.
“The biggest thing with Vernon [when he arrived at Florida] was his self esteem and image took a huge hit,” Donovan said. “It didn’t have anything to do with Georgetown, it was just his mindset going into Georgetown. He’d even tell you now that he went in there thinking he was one and done. He had to go to college in the first year of the rule [that prohibited NBA teams from draft players until after their freshman year in college].
“He probably would have been a lottery pick otherwise, but he couldn’t get on the floor [as a freshman]. And all of a sudden, he’s thinking, ‘am I good enough?’ ”
Donovan had no doubt Macklin was good enough. The first step in re-establishing the big man’s positive mindset was convincing him he could be an integral part of the Gators’ system.
“At Georgetown, I played behind two great players,” Macklin said. “They didn’t have to pay too much attention to me. But when I got here, the coaching staff and my teammates really needed in my, really believed in me. When you have so many people believing in you, you’ve got to go out and play hard. You don’t want to let them down.”
Macklin hasn’t let anyone down. Neither has he racked up stats (11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg) the way Horford and Noah did, but he’s given the Gators a low-post threat on both ends of the floor.
“Not many people can guard him one-on-one in there,” SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons said. “In our offense, he draws so much attention when he gets the ball on that block. It frees up a lot of our other guys for open looks.
“On the defensive end, he’s also one of the best defenders in the country. Just his presence down there with his strength and shot-blocking ability has given us a huge lift this year. And he’s one of the best passers I’ve ever played with. I’ve never seen a big man pass like that. With the attention he draws, it makes everyone else better.”
One of Macklin’s most effective weapons has been the jump hook, which he can shoot with either hand. He brought the shot with him from Georgetown, where he was a frequent sparring partner of Hibbert’s.
“Roy and I used to shoot it a lot when I was at Georgetown,” Macklin said. “But when I got here, coach Donovan and coach [Rob] Lanier put in different moves, counter moves—if a guy cuts you off, come back this way, stuff like that—and taught me how to read defenses.”
Just like Macklin understudied and learned from Hibbert, Macklin has now handed down what he’s learned to Patric Young, the freshman big man and future star. Their frequent low-post practice battles have sharpened both their games.
“It’s helped playing against Pat every day,” Macklin said. “He knows me, and he tries to cut me off as soon as he can [when Macklin shoots his jump hook]. But it’s to the point where he tries to cut me off and I can still get the shot off. He’s learning how to [shoot the jump hook] now, and it’s hard when I’ve got to guard him. It’s a tough shot to block.”
If the Gators once again make a deep run through the tournament—and it starts Thursday night against UC Santa Barbara—there’s no doubt Macklin will play a role. He’s the only Florida player to have won an NCAA Tournament game—Georgetown advance to the Final Four in 2007 and the second round in 2008—and he thinks the Gators have the chops to do some damage.
“I like our team,” Macklin said. “[To advance in the NCAAs] we have to play hard and listen to the coaches. We’ve got to play every single possession like it’s our last. If we do that, we’ll be OK.”