Aleks Szymczyk’s consistency in refining his craft makes him an integral piece in Florida’s shorthanded frontcourt to end the 2022-23 season.
Photo: Aleks Szymczyk; Credit: University of Florida Athletic Association Creative Media
Unideal circumstances have drastically changed the trajectory of the Gators’ basketball season.
After sitting on a now-popped bubble for the larger portion of the SEC slate of contests, Florida’s recent losing skid and the loss of star forward Colin Castleton for the season have forced the unit to reinvent itself on the fly. While the “tournament-level expectations” Todd Golden set out for the team this preseason look unattainable, there are still ways to equip the unit for the future to end the season.
That includes tailoring the message for how each player will contribute moving forward.
“The message is a little different for everyone,” Golden said on Tuesday. “When Colin’s out, everybody has to step up. Everybody has to do a little bit more. That doesn’t mean they need to score more or make every play; it just means that you have to hold yourself more accountable on the winning things.”
Freshman center Aleks Szymczyk is an essential piece to that puzzle despite following a drastically different path than others expected to shoulder a greater load.
His first step to seeing the floor at the collegiate level was adjusting to the American style of basketball, which wasn’t expected to come to fruition until year two.
However, he took it head-on during the offseason regimen after his August arrival from Munich. The talented German big man spent countless hours refining his craft to adapt to his new environment, showing a desire to learn from veterans like Castleton, followed by extra time on the court post-practice this offseason.
That carried into how he approached the season.
While his inexperience was evident then, Szymczyk’s continuous transformation equipped him to be thrown into the fire when Castleton went down for the year with a broken hand in the second half against Ole Miss.
“Yeah, I go back to his consistency,” Golden said when asked about his growth throughout the year. “The way he approaches practice every day. You’re not going to find many guys that last longer on the floor than he does after practice in terms of getting his additional work in and additional skills and spends a lot of time with [strength and condition coordinator Victor Lopez] in the weight room. And I think his body’s continued to transform over the year.”
On Saturday, he got his first opportunity to showcase his progression over the last six months in meaningful minutes.
He produced well for the Gators, accounting for eight points (two three-pointers), six rebounds, four steals, one block and one assist in his 20-minute outing. His day was highlighted by a rejection of Arkansas forward Jordan Walsh at the rim in one of his first defensive possessions of the first half.
That play built momentum for the rest of his day.
“I thought he was really good,” Golden shared regarding his performance on Tuesday. “Obviously had some mistakes and wasn’t perfect, but the guy’s first real rip was in Bud Walton, one of the hardest places to play in America.
“Most impressive thing was he wasn’t scared. He had a great mentality. Stepping on the court with older guys, good players, stepping up and hitting two big [threes]. Was really pleased, and I’m happy for him that he was able to perform so well.”
His prowess working inside-out looked serviceable in the first half in relief of new starter Jason Jitoboh as he provided his stretch five talents on offense and displayed a knack for disrupting the Hogs’ passing lanes to set up Florida with transition scoring chances.
It was a positive debut of sorts in his highest volume showing in his freshman season, coined as a validating performance by an already pretty confident kid by Golden.
As a result, Florida feels comfortable moving forward with him operating significantly as the team’s backup five — and occasionally as a four in tandem with Jitoboh.
“We’re gonna ride with him down the stretch without Colin,” said the Florida head coach. “But, it gives you more confidence as a coach knowing that, and that’s one of the things that we value so much about him is just his competitive spirit and his approach on a day-to-day basis and his consistency.
“I mean, eight and six in  minutes is hard to do for anybody, but for a freshman in that environment, I thought was really, really good and says a lot about what his potential is for his future here.”
His steadfast commitment to his improvement and work ethic to ensure can pay dividends to the Gators’ shorthanded frontcourt throughout the season’s remainder and into next year.
Szymczyk encompasses the type of players Golden and Co. will look to line the roster with alongside the other true freshman.
“He along with Denzel [Aberdeen], Riley [Kugel], them being freshmen, those are the type of guys that we’ll continue to bring into our program, guys that work really hard, guys that are proud to be here and guys that aren’t satisfied, guys that want to continue to try to build bigger roles within the program.”
The trio — due to need and Florida’s bubble for tournament contention recently being popped — will be given heightened roles in the home stretch of the 2022-23 season.
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