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College basketball

A center in a forward's body

At 6 feet 9, Florida's David Lee has assumed Udonis Haslem's responsibility for defending big men.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 25, 2003


GAINESVILLE -- For a player who has spent most of his career as a power forward, David Lee is holding his own at center for Florida.

Entering the season, one of the biggest question marks surrounding the Gators was who -- and how -- would they replace All-SEC center Udonis Haslem.

Lee has, for the most part, been a solid answer to that question.

"David Lee was a role guy last year that played limited minutes," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "One of the questions coming in was, "Is David Lee going to step up and perform in the middle like he's capable of and block shots and rebound and do the things he can do?' Yes, I think he's done that."

The St. Louis native and former McDonald's All-American leads the Gators in rebounding (7.1 per game), which also is good enough for sixth in the conference and puts him in the company of Alabama's Erwin Dudley, the reigning SEC player of the year, LSU star Ronald Dupree and Mississippi State big man Mario Austin.

But Lee said he knows he's not ready to be compared with the other top centers in the league. Or with his predecessor.

"We're obviously very different players," Lee said. "I'm not all of a sudden going to be at (Haslem's) strength level and have his presence inside. I'm just trying to do the best I can. He's a tremendous player to replace, so we try to do that by committee this year."

The 6-foot-9 sophomore has led or tied the Gators in rebounding 14 times this season, has four double doubles and 14 double-figure scoring games.

Six of his seven double-figure rebounding games have come this season. He also has led the team in blocked shots in 16 of 26 games, third-best in the SEC.

And remember, center is not where he's most comfortable playing.

"He's done a great job," senior captain Matt Bonner said. "It's not his natural position. But for us to have a chance to be the best we can be as a team, he has to play that position, and that's what he's done.

"He's going to do whatever he can to help the team. And most games, that means ... having to guard the other team's big man. And in this league, with the sizable frontcourts that we go against, that's a huge task."

Still, 26 games into the season, Florida's inside game remains one of its weaknesses.

In games against Kentucky and Tennessee, Florida's struggles to score inside and inability to defend inside cost it. The Gators rely heavily on the perimeter game, and Donovan said Monday, "We aren't a big, strong, physical presence inside."

Lee said he has "at times" done well against opposing centers, but he must "take it game by game to put more emphasis on rebounding."

When Florida (22-4) hosts South Carolina (11-12) tonight in a nationally televised SEC game, Lee will face players who have given him and the frontcourt a tough time this season: center Tony Kitchings and forward Rolando Howell.

In their previous meeting, Kitchings scored 19 of his 22 points during the first half. Lee spent most of that time in foul trouble, eventually playing just 18 minutes.

"It was my fault," Lee said. "I came out and disrespected him a little bit. I saw that he wasn't averaging a whole bunch of points coming off an injury, and I really didn't do a good enough job denying him the ball.

"He had a reputation of when he gets the ball down low, he's able to make tough shots. And that's what he did. Going into this game, I have great respect for him, and I know I have to go out and play my best game defensively."

Honest nearly to a fault, he admits he often didn't understand the demands of college basketball last season and struggled to comprehend how he could have a phenomenal game one night then play horribly the next.

Donovan said Lee was "up and down" in November but came back after the Christmas break with a renewed sense of wanting to become the best he could be.

What Lee lacks in size against some of the league's beefy centers, he makes up for with his versatility. Center is his title, but he has the ability to dribble and drive with a quick inside move to score in the paint.

"He makes it difficult for the opposing team's center to come out and guard and challenge," Donovan said. "Plus, if you do bring your center out there, David has the ability to put it on the floor and go around you. From an offensive standpoint, he is a tremendous weapon because of the way he handles the passes."

And, oh, yeah, there's his other specialty: dunking. He leads the team with 41.

"It's pretty sweet. I love dunking the ball," he said.

Only a 57 percent free-throw shooter, Lee knows his game is only beginning to develop. For now, he said he is just doing the best he can to help the Gators be the best they can.

"Defensively, I'm probably not cut out to be guarding guys that are 6-10, 265. But I think I've done an okay job with it this year."

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