When Kenny Kadji, a four-star recruit from IMG Academy, arrived at Florida his conditioning was bad.
"I couldn't even get through practice," he said
Progression has been slow – he's still averaging just 5.1 points and 2.1 rebounds per game – but there are moments where Kadji's skill shines through. Like when he catches the ball in the post, feels the defender and then turns and hits a jump shot.
Or when he blocked Vanderbilt's A.J. Ogilvy twice in a row the other day and then sprinted down to the offensive end and scored on a tip-in. It was probably Kadji's best sequence since he got to Florida, one that showed his length on the defensive end, his athleticism to get down the court and his timing to put the ball in the basket after a missed shot.
Kadji finished with seven points and four blocks in Florida's 82-68 win over the Commodores. That's coming off an 8-point, 8-rebound performance in the win over Alabama earlier in the week. There is improvement but now consistency is the next step in Kadji's development.
"The four, five, six minutes you saw there, one day you see it, the next day you don't," coach Billy Donovan said after the Vanderbilt game. "Then the next day you do. As much as I want to fast forward the process, what I try to do is expose every day who he wants to be.
"You see him block two shots and then he's there on the break. Then there's this side that he's not really there. That's where he's got to get better at identifying and making a decision of where do I want to be? There's a side of him that needs to be more focused."
Kadji has the ability to make things happen, plus he's a big body that Florida desperately needs in the frontcourt. Alex Tyus, at 6 feet 8, is too small to play center although he's been thrust into that spot because the Gators have no one else.
Eloy Vargas has been hampered with injuries and has hardly played this season. Allan Chaney, another forward, has been out with an injury. The loss of Marreese Speights, who left for the NBA after his sophomore year, has been significantly felt. Fatigue has been an issue with Kadji, rated as the fifth-best center in the 2008 class by Rivals.com.
Kadji is getting better – there's no way he could've made the play against Ogilvy earlier this season – but a project that might be ready for next season is needed now as the Gators, who visit No. 18 LSU at 9 p.m. Tuesday, battle for a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Florida missed the tourney last year.
"I feel like I'm stepping up even more and getting better," Kadji said. "I'm going to try to build on that, just my energy and my conditioning. We had some extra stuff we did with coach waking up at like 7:15 and running, doing some workouts. That helped me a lot, too. … Kind of tough but when you get the results you don't think about that."
Kadji realized he was out of shape once he got to Florida and saw all the other players running up and down the court without problems. He was gassed, couldn't finish practices, knew he had to build up his conditioning. It became apparent he would not be an immediate contributor.
But he's slowly improving. His offense is better, he's more active around the basket and he's playing more physically on defense, although everything must still improve for him to have a major impact in the SEC sometime down the road.
"I'm not trying to compare or anything, but that's what made (Joakim) Noah and (Al) Horford so great," Donovan said. "There was an edge and a focus and a competitiveness. They never had those moments, because they were just so competitive.
"Kenny is competitive, but his biggest challenge is fatigue. Fatigue brings him down. He gets tired. You see a glimpse of what he could be. The challenge is can he play for longer stretches?"
Associate head coach Larry Shyatt said: "It's more a product of freshmen and newness. It's all new (for Kadji). The one identifiable characteristic of this team … is they practice hard. They practice long and hard as well as the freshmen. That's a compliment. They went into the (Vanderbilt and Alabama games) focused and ready to practice and prepare for the game rather than just walk into the game hoping."
LSU (23-4, 11-1 SEC) will provide problems. Guard Marcus Thornton averages 20.5 points per game, forward Tasmin Mitchell is getting 16.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and guard Bo Spencer scores 11.7 points. Center Chris Johnson is a handful and so is guard Garrett Temple. The Tigers are the only conference team ranked in The Associated Press poll.