When it comes to recruiting, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton and his staff couldn’t care less about star rankings. “We like looking under more rocks,” Hamilton says, laughing. “I don’t know that I’ve ever asked one of my assistants where a kid was rated. I’m not even sure the last time I looked at a rating, to be honest with you.”
The FSU coaches value character and work ethic more than pre-college accolades. Not that skill level isn’t one of their criteria, too, but it’s a lot easier to develop skill than it is character and work ethic.
“We spend more time coaching their minds and their spirits than their bodies,” Hamilton says. “When we grow and develop those mental and emotional skills, it allows them to have a better approach and focus on how to overcome physical challenges.”
That approach helps explain the Seminoles’ success under Hamilton -- they won the ACC regular-season championship in 2020 and Hamilton, who just finished his 18th season in Tallahassee, is ranked fifth in league history in career wins and career ACC wins.
It also helps explain how FSU found Devin Vassell, who in two years in Hamilton’s system transformed from a scrawny, under-recruited guard into a player widely considered a lottery pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. Before the Seminoles became involved in his recruiting, Vassell had been offered Division I scholarships by only Presbyterian and North Florida.
Hamilton gives his assistant coaches unilateral decision-making power in recruiting, which is why when Charlton “C.Y.” Young first heard Vassell’s name, from a trusted source in Atlanta in March 2017, he got fired up.
“I’d had some people in Atlanta calling me about a kid from Peachtree Ridge High School,” Young says. “There hadn’t been a player come out of there in like 100 years. Maybe a couple Division II guys. But I’ve got one source there, anytime he calls me, I catch a flight, because he can evaluate. So he tells me, ‘listen man, I’ve got one -- he isn’t ranked anywhere, but I’m telling you, he’s a pro.’”
The next day Young was in Atlanta, watching a scrimmage arranged just for him. It took Young all of six minutes to agree with the assessment he’d heard a day earlier. Vassell was pro.
Young wasn’t the least bit concerned about Vassell’s then 6-foot-5, 163-pound frame. Young gets animated retelling part of what he saw in those six minutes.
“First possession, a guy drives baseline. Devin rotates and pins it to the glass,” Young says. “They go the other way, he dribbles into the paint, makes a 10-foot floater. Back on defense, they swing it around, he breaks into the passing lane and takes it the length of the floor, but he doesn’t lay it up. He passes to another guy.”
After Young watched Vassell make an open 3-pointer from the corner on another possession and then tip dunk a missed 3 on yet another, he was sold. He didn’t need to call Hamilton. Young offered Vassell a scholarship on the spot.
“I thought, this kid’s the truth,” Young says. “I thought he would be a four-year guy, but I thought he’d be a pro. I thought he was Allan Houston. High-character kid, gym rat. Looks like a Huxtable, but the guy wakes up every morning mad as hell because he was ranked like No. 200 in the country.”
When Vassell showed up at Florida State, he wasn’t any less angry. If anything, he was even hungrier to prove he belonged.
“Before Devin got here, a lot of people in his community asked him, ‘why are you going to an ACC school?” says longtime FSU assistant coach Stan Jones. “You’re never gonna play there. You’re probably gonna redshirt. People were filling him with negativity. So he immediately makes friends with [then junior guard] Trent Forrest. And now they’re the best of friends. Trent showed him how to get in the gym and work on his own. Taught him how to understand and apply scouting reports. Showed him how to get the most out of watching film, and how to conduct himself on campus and the community. Peer leadership put Devin on the fast track.”
Looks like a Huxtable, but the guy wakes up every morning mad as hell because he was ranked like No. 200 in the country."
Vassell’s freshman year statistics were modest -- playing on a deep team, he averaged 4.5 points and 1.5 rebounds -- but his 3-point percentage was proof of how hard he was willing to work. Vassell was a career 21% 3-point shooter in high school. He shot 41.9% on 3-pointers in his first season at FSU.
As a sophomore, Vassell led the Seminoles in scoring (12.7 ppg), rebounding (5.1 rpg) and 3-point percentage (41.5%) and was second in steals (42) and blocked shots (29). Everything Young saw in that scrimmage in Atlanta had come to pass -- Vassell was a stat-sheet stuffer. But he wasn’t going to be a four-year player. In March, Vassell declared for the Draft.
No one on the FSU staff doubts Vassell -- now 6-foot-7 and 194 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan -- is worthy of a lottery pick, or that he’ll be successful.
“This dude is special,” Young says. “You can put him out there with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum and he’s going to get 18 or 20 and they’ll love him. He’s not going to need the ball, and he’s always going to make the right play.”
“He can fit in any role,” Jones says. “He might not be among the top three core guys on a team, but he could be a fourth or fifth guy. Like a Danny Green, who was in San Antonio and Toronto and has stayed in the league a long time. He’s got great basketball IQ. He’s a great finisher in transition. He’s got an unbelievable ability to go left or right, take one or two dribbles and get his primary defender up in the air a little bit. And he’s a killer on mid-range jumpers. He can elevate before the defense can recover. Any team that values that, he’s going to be a perfect addition for them.”
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