Florida State’s Leonard Hamilton is creating history helping players reach NBA potential
Since 2016, FSU ranks fourth for players drafted into the NBA
Editor’s Note: FSU’s Scottie Barnes was selected fourth overall by the Toronto Raptors, making him Leonard Hamilton’s 20th overall NBA draft selection during his head-coaching career in college basketball.
Many may think of traditional schools such as Duke, Kansas and Kentucky as the renowned programs to produce the top NBA players. One school that should also be in that conversation is Florida State and its head coach Leonard Hamilton.
Florida State is tied at fourth with Villanova and Washington for total draft selections over the past five years, behind only Kentucky, Duke and North Carolina, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Florida State has had seven draft selections since 2016, including five first-rounders: Patrick Williams, Devin Vassell, Mfiondu Kabengele, Jonathan Isaac and Malik Beasley.
“The public has been disrespectful of Leonard’s achievements,” former college basketball coach George Raveling told The Undefeated. “It could be for lack of awareness or whatever, but it’s a real conundrum. How the hell can this guy do all this and it not be well known? And, here we are in 2021, and if it was a TV show, it’d be called Hidden Secrets. I don’t understand, it’s right there in the history books.”
During the 2021 NBA draft Thursday night, the Seminoles will have four players available: Scottie Barnes, RaiQuan Gray, M.J. Walker and Balsa Koprivica. The first Seminole chosen will account for Hamilton’s 20th overall NBA draft selection during his head-coaching career at Florida State, Miami and Oklahoma State, according to Florida State. If Barnes is selected fifth overall by the Orlando Magic, as projected by ESPN.com, Florida State will be the only college with two top-five selections in 2020 and 2021 NBA drafts.
“It means that we are creating an atmosphere for them to reach their potential,” Hamilton said of his Seminoles players making it to the NBA. “I’m happy for them. I’m equally happy for them to graduate. The main thing is to get them to reach their potential. I am excited about kids reaching their potential and their dreams.”
So what has been the key to Hamilton’s players getting drafted by the NBA?
One longtime NBA scout told The Undefeated Hamilton’s players are attractive to the NBA because they are athletic, play defense, have a team mentality and they know how to win. Another scout said Hamilton fosters an environment that encourages his players to become mature and humble, a huge advantage in the NBA.
Hamilton certainly knows what players can expect in the NBA, too, as he was head coach of the Washington Wizards during the 2000-01 season with Michael Jordan as the team’s president of basketball operations. That NBA experience helped Hamilton run his college basketball program in the same way an NBA franchise is run.
“He sets up the Florida State basketball program as if it were an NBA team, which makes the transition to the NBA easy,” Barnes said. “For example, from the rotational standpoint to developing our minds mentally to scouting game plans for other teams, it helps us mature and will help with the transition to the NBA and get prepared for the next level.”
Kabengele, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers, said: “Coach Hamilton prepared me for the NBA by telling me stories and experiences of himself and other players and what they faced. He alerted me to the little nuances of the league that I didn’t know before and that helped.”
Hamilton, 72, is also one of the most successful coaches in NCAA Division I history with 579 wins over 33 seasons. He ranks 75th all time in NCAA Division I history, according to the NCAA. The only active African American NCAA Division I coach with more wins is High Point’s Tubby Smith. Hamilton is the winningest coach in Florida State men’s basketball history and was signed to an extension through the 2024-25 season on March 1. The three-time Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year has led Florida State to two ACC titles and eight NCAA tournament appearances over 19 seasons.
Raveling, a longtime mentor to Hamilton, believes the 72-year-old should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Raveling also said Hamilton does a lot behind the scenes to help African Americans get college basketball coaching jobs.
“Leonard’s always been one of those guys who has led from behind,” Raveling told The Undefeated. “And so as a result, I think people see him, but don’t see him, and he’s just continued to go about achieving success on every level. Every single program. If you look at what they were doing before he got there, he took the program to a higher level of achievement. But to tell the story of Leonard Hamilton, the coach, is to miss the overall essence of him as a person because Leonard, he’s far more than a coach.
“The first thing he does is he’s a leader, and then the second thing that he does is he’s a manager, and then the third thing is that he’s a coach because he’s been able to lead those programs forward, and to do that you have to manage the people within those systems, and then the ultimate thing is the coaching.”
One example of Hamilton being far more than a coach is the high percentage of players that he graduates.
Ten Florida State men’s basketball players graduated with either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in April. Hamilton has graduated 71 of 73 players at Florida State who played through their senior seasons. He also graduated 28 of 31 players at the University of Miami who played through their senior season.
Walker is a likely late second-round prospect in Thursday’s NBA draft, and he also earned a degree from Florida State in social sciences.
“Coach Ham is like your grandfather,” Walker said. “He cares more about you off the court than on the court. He recruits guys that are talented. But he’s looking more down the road and wants everyone to have successful lives. It feels like we are going to do well basketball-wise, but he is more concerned about our lives.”
Hamilton is well aware that most of his players won’t be playing in the NBA, and cares about their futures off the court and stays in touch with most of them. It’s not uncommon for him to get a phone call when a former player is trying to make a major life decision.
“Five or six years after a kid has left you, what kind of husband, father, neighbor, what kind of citizen are you?” Hamilton said. “What kind of neighbor is he? How did he benefit from his journey, or from being a part of your tutelage? That’s what’s important. And as happy as I am, 98% of all my players won’t be playing in the NBA.”
Hamilton’s former players love their father-son type of relationship with the coach.
“Coach Hamilton is a man of high integrity because he always does what he says he’s going to do,” Barnes said. “He’s a father figure away from home and someone that I can always turn to no matter how far it is down my career. He generally cares about his players’ futures and his willingness to help us achieve our dreams.”
Said Kabengele: “Coach Ham is like a wise godfather, his outlook on the big picture made you more poised in tough times. I just saw the way he carries himself every day makes you want to be like him because it works.”
Hamilton will not be in the green room with Barnes during the NBA draft Thursday. Although he has joined players in the green room in the past, he says he prefers the spotlight be on the players and their families on their big night.
But as Florida State continues to send more players to the NBA, Hamilton deserves more respect for getting them prepared for the pros and for life after basketball.
“We all have a purpose in life on this earth to fulfill,” Hamilton said. “And in the Bible, it says that when you’re fulfilling the purpose that we have on earth, there is a peace of understanding that comes over you. You feel good about what you’re doing every day. And that’s the way I feel. Every day I’m at peace with what I do. And I think I’m supposed to take young people and nurture them into young adulthood. That’s the most important thing I do.”