Riley Kugel: The Rise of the Florida Gators True Freshman
After star big man Colin Castleton’s season ending injury, the true freshman emerged as the "go-to" guy for the Gators—but was this rise ultimately inevitable?
Happy Sunday, Draft Maniacs! We’re in the middle of the BEST time of the year for college basketball and NBA Draft fans.
The 2023 NCAA men’s and women’s tournaments have officially started, and there is utter madness in the air. From upsets (Hello, Princeton and FDU), game-winners (Go Paladins, Owls), moving storylines, and the disappointment of your favorite team losing—March Madness never disappoints.
But what would make an NBA Draft analyst’s favorite month of the year better? If the team that had an intriguing, rising draft prospect had the chance to play on that kind of national stage.
Enter the Florida Gators and freshman Riley Kugel.
Now, March Madness certainly doesn’t play all too much in the overall evaluation of a prospect. However, it can be very telling in some areas (especially where there are concerns), and it can potentially boost the prospect’s draft stock. Unfortunately, the Gators had a pretty disappointing season (16-17, 8th in SEC) and didn’t punch their ticket to the “Big Dance” this year. Instead, they earned a bid to the NIT Tournament, where Florida ended up losing to potential 2023 NBA Draft Top 10 pick Taylor Hendricks and UCF 67-49 at home.
Kugel led the Gators with 13 points, two rebounds, one assist, 4-12 FG, 3-6 3PT, and 2-4 FT in 30 minutes.
So, what is the selling point with Riley Kugel?
How does the talented freshman guard’s game translate to the NBA?
Since Kugel’s progressive emergence as the “go-to” guy for the Gators, is he a this year guy or a next year guy?
Let’s dive in!
Kugel wasn’t a highly touted prospect coming out of high school. Per the 2022 RSCI Top 100 rankings, Kugel was ranked as the 64th-ranked overall prospect out of Dr. Phillips High School (Florida). He also was ranked as the nation’s #72 prospect, #10 shooting guard, and Florida’s #14 overall recruit per the On3 consensus rankings.
While at Dr. Phillips, he led the Panthers to their first state championship in school history (2021) and a 2022 state runner-up finish. He also earned Florida All-State honors and averaged 16.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game in his senior season. The electric guard was once committed to the Mississippi State Bulldogs, but he eventually elected to de-commit due to head coach Ben Howland being fired. He chose the Gators and head coach Todd Golden over fellow finalists Georgia and LSU.
After Colin Castleton suffered a broken right hand in Florida’s win over Ole Miss in the middle of February, the Gators were in desperate need of someone to take the “key to the swamp” that Castleton previously held. Riley Kugel quickly stepped into this new role, and man, did he take off. Even a few games before Castleton’s injury, Kugel showed a “prelude” of the scoring explosion that was about to come. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason, and not one person’s path is the same—especially in the game of basketball, since so many factors play into a player’s path at every level. Hopefully, Kugel was going to get more of a leash as the season went on had Castleton not been injured, but this blow to the Gators might have been a blessing in disguise. Kugel not only became more confident in his game, but he became even more comfortable in growing into the primary offensive weapon for the Gators. From barely seeing the floor at the start of the season (mostly a 10-minute per game guy) to now, his upward trajectory to making the All-SEC Freshman Team has been a beautiful thing to watch unfold.
Over the last 10 games of the season, the 6’5” 207-pound combo guard averaged:
49.6 FG% (63/127)
39.6 3PT% (19/48)
66.7 FT% (28/42)
*Kugel’s 10 straight double-figure scoring games to end the season is the longest streak in SEC play for a Florida freshman since Bradley Beal (10 straight in 2011-12).*
Compared to the first 23 games:
41.5 FG% (51/123)
35.5 3PT% (16/45)
65.8 FT% (27/41)
2022-2023 Season averages:
The selling point with Riley Kugel is his athleticism, three-level scoring ability, off-the-dribble creation, tough shot-making, and the NBA-level shooting range he possesses—a pretty well-versed offensive skillset if you ask me. Kugel’s creativity in how he creates his own shot and offense is especially exciting when talking about how valuable this skill is in the NBA now. Per Synergy, Kugel is shooting 39.4 FG% off the dribble. His 1.00 points per off-the-dribble possession ranks in the 85th percentile—falling in the “Excellent” category for Synegy’s PPS (Points Per Shot) rating. The other part of his game that falls in the “Excellent” range is guarded catch-and-shoot three-pointers. On those shots, Kugel is averaging 1.20 points per possession—ranking in the 86th percentile (Excellent).
The 19-year-old’s increase in three-point percentage, shot attempts, and efficiency throughout the season have all been very promising. Numbers aside, the way he can create offense for himself beyond the arc and inside is special. Kugel is fast, twitchy, and athletic for his size as a guard, but the way he moves is very controlled. That’s not to say he doesn’t rush things at times, but for the most part, he looks in control out there. Being not only shifty but also calculated as a ball-handler (especially in the pick-and-roll) is a dangerous combination. This skill set is not only translatable, but also can be lethal at the next level. One of his favorite moves is a step-back jumper off-the-dribble, coming from a crossover on either side. I really enjoy watching Kugel play off-ball, as he works so hard to get open by faking out defenders with his foot speed, feints, and elite ball-handling ability.
As a defender, I can imagine it would be somewhat of a nightmare defending him. He’s constantly moving and is really just all over the place. Given Kugel’s poise on the perimeter and how he is such a three-point threat, this allows him to attack defenders off hard closeouts easily off the bounce—one of the best things he’s good at. When in the mid-range, Riley really likes to drive right (69% of his drive possessions are on the right side, per Synergy), then hit the defenders with a behind-the-back to his left side to a quick-release jumper. One thing I’m looking for in Kugel to develop is more of a mid-range game. He’s more than capable of it, and he has had some unreal tough makes inside the arc. It’s just about taking more attempts in that area and being more comfortable getting to his spots there. On the season, Kugel only has 24 total jump shot possessions inside the three-point line.
Pick-and-Roll Ball Handling/Playmaking
When operating as a ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, Kugel ranks in the 76th percentile (Very Good), scoring 0.892 points per possession. Most of Kugel’s shots come off operating in the PnR (27.8% of his play duration), using a variety of screens to better create for himself off-the-dribble. He shot 42.3 FG% out of the PnR, mostly settling for three-pointers, long twos, and not a lot of PnR playmaking action. Kugel possesses a very deep bag of tricks when it comes to his ball-handling: crossovers, behind the backs, wrap-arounds, hesitations, trap dribbles—just to name a few moves that he’s very fluent at. But with this, I want to see him make more reads out of the PnR and hit the roll man more. In the clips provided above, there are a few possessions where he hits his teammates on the perimeter for the three-pointer, rather than looking at his roll-man in a wide-open lane for an easy layup. In these types of situations, it seems like Kugel is reacting to the defense too quickly, and already has in mind what he is going to do before the defenders actually move. Kugel is more than capable of making these types of reads out of the pick-and-roll, and yes, his role on this Gators team, especially without Castleton, was to be the main scorer. But as a pure scorer and team leader, being able to consistently play out of the PnR and not just looking for individual scoring opportunities is a vital skill the NBA looks for in prospects.
When it comes to playmaking and being a facilitator, there is a lot of opportunity for Kugel here. This season he only had 33 assists with an AST/TO ratio of 0.72. Per Sports Reference, Kugel had a turnover percentage of 14.2%, 23.5% usage, and an assist percentage of 9.5%. I really like Kugel’s reads in transition. In out-of-bounds situations, one of the things he tends to do a lot is quickly taking a peek up the court for where his teammates are located to give him a quick advantage once he receives the ball. After he does this, Kugel pushes the ball instantly and makes a strong, accurate pass to his shooters on the perimeter or cutters for open looks. Even on opponent misses, he flies down the court looking for his teammates and playmaking opportunities. Kugel looks SO comfortable in transition, and the game just looks like it comes so easy for him there. Now, if he can start making more of these types of reads/having more of a feel for where his teammates are in the halfcourt, there could very well be a big problem for defenses. The freshman has had some very exciting flashes of types of passes he can make (bounce passes, cross-court passes, alley-oops, etc.), but we as evaluators just want to see more of it and at a more solid rate.
As I talked about before, Kugel is capable of playing off-ball and can make the lives of defenders pretty discouraging here. With his speed, athleticism, and the pressure he puts on defenses due to being a high-level perimeter threat, a lot opens up for him when he doesn’t always have the ball in his hands. Per Barttorvik, Kugel has 15 dunks on the season; he has finished at the rim at a 54.8% clip (63/115), with 44.4% of his looks at the rim being assisted. Some of my favorite ways Kugel creates looks for himself off-ball are through faking out defenders on the perimeter with quick hesitations, and using a back-door cut to the rim for a crafty finish. If you’re overplaying Kugel on the perimeter and trying to stay “locked-in” on him so he doesn’t hit a three-pointer possibly in your face, be prepared for him to just back-cut you for an easy layup or dunk.
When it comes to finishing at the rim, Kugel uses a combination of size, angle manipulation, body control, and strength to be able to score at the basket at an effective rate. The freshman’s athleticism takes on full display here as he constantly finds ways to finish through contact, make mid-air adjustments, and get himself to the charity stripe.
On the defensive side, this is a part of Kugel’s game that is more telling in where he needs to make the most improvements going forward. Head coach Todd Golden recently commended Kugel’s improved defensive efforts throughout the season last week, and said that he has made solid strides in enhancing that part of his game to go hand-in-hand with his advanced offensive skill set. Kugel can get caught ball-watching and not in a defensive stance at all. He seems to “zone out” and forget that he’s playing sometimes, just not making a noticeable, solid effort to look that he’s even a little interested in guarding his man. Now, Coach Golden was right in that he didn’t do that as much towards the end of the season compared to the beginning, but he still has insistences where this is the case. Kugel also tends to keep his hands low when being in help defense, and then when the ball is quickly skipped over, throw his hands up too fast and be too late in getting a hand to contest his opponent’s shot or disrupt their drive to the basket. He also needs to work on his screen navigation, as he gets blindsided by a lot of them when chasing shooters around. That’s just a communication thing that will come along, and knowing your personnel (Let’s just say he didn’t have the best time guarding UConn sharpshooter Jordan Hawkins). By no means am I trying to slander Kugel in this area as I do think he has a TON of tools and potential to be a solid defender in college and in the NBA. It just comes down to showing more of a consistent and willing effort on this side of the ball that I know he is capable of being the kind of player he is!
There have been flashes of Kugel displaying a defensive motor in which he uses his quick feet and strong frame to throw opponents off the dribble and off the line, forcing them to only take tough shots. Riley tends to keep his hands up and stand his ground when switched on in the post, creating a tough environment for big men and less-athletic guards to operate out of when facing him. He also has extremely great instincts, hands, and feel in passing lanes, finishing with 26 steals on the season and a steal percentage of 2.1%, per Synergy. The freshman also finished with six blocks on the season. I’m excited to see the development he can make here, as I think as he gets older his defensive feel and prowess will only improve.
So, is Riley Kugel a “this year” guy or a “next year” guy?
That’s a question I want YOU, as the reader and NBA Draft connoisseur, to answer. Knowing what you know now, or knew before reading this piece on Florida Gator freshman star guard Riley Kugel, what’s your answer?
Rumors aside, as there have been some mentioning he might test the 2023 NBA Draft waters in going to workouts and the combine, I want to see your unbiased thoughts on Kugel as solely just a prospect.
If you made it this far (You Rock), make sure to tag me on Twitter (@paigeotto_) with your answer to the question above, and I’ll be sure to reply with my own thoughts and opinion on Kugel!