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Walter Clayton’s, Will Richard’s NBA dalliances raise Gators’ stock

GAINESVILLE — Florida combo guard Walter Clayton Jr. was long shot to get drafted.

Sharpshooter Will Richard’s odds of an NBA team selecting him June 26-27 were even lower.

But the duo raised the 2024-25 Gators’ stock by exploring their professional options before deciding to return to UF for a final season.

Coach Todd Golden’s team will open offseason workouts Monday after a 24-win season and first NCAA Tournament bid since 2021, with Clayton, the leading scorer last season, and Richard, a dangerous 3-point shooter and solid all-around player, back after valuable experiences testing the NBA waters.

“Us getting them back in my mind is the best of both worlds for us,” Golden recently told The Orlando Sentinel. “It gave them an opportunity to really see what certain NBA teams were wanting to see out of them and now get an opportunity to come compete one more time in the SEC. I’m thrilled that both of them are back.”

Skepticism was short-sighted following each player’s announcement to explore his professional options, despite modest immediate interest from NBA decision-makers.

Clayton and Richard played the long game during a typically slow time following the regular season.

“Those are all great opportunities for them to continue getting better and continuing kind of working on their exposure as they get ready for the next level,” Golden said.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Clayton earned an invitation to the G-League scouting combine, where he averaged 15.5 points in two games, after earning All-SEC with a team-leading scoring average of 17.6 points following his transfer from St. John’s.

The 6-foot-4, 206-pound Richard worked out for five or six NBA teams, Golden said, and “he handled it really maturely” before returning to UF.

“Whatever the percentage odds of him getting selected before, during and after are doesn’t matter because those experiences that he got being in front of those NBA teams are invaluable,” Golden said. “He’ll be better suited to have a really good year because of it.”

Richard aims improved on last season, when his 3-point accuracy dipped to 34.5% (70 of 203) after he shot 39.8% (50 of 128) in 2022-23, while bringing more offensive punch to a team replacing three of its top five scorers — Zyon Pullin, Tyrese Samuel and Riley Kugel.

Pullin, who averaged 15.5 points, also set the single-season record with a 3.77 assist-to-turnover ratio, while Samuel averaged a team-leading 7.4 rebounds and 13.9 points.

Yet, Golden said the return of Clayton and Richard, junior point guard Denzel Aberdeen (Orlando Dr. Phillips), who emerged last season, give the Gators a backcourt foundation. Sophomore post players Alex Condon Jr. and Thomas Haugh are poised to make a Year 2 leap after combining for an average of 11.2 points and 10.1 rebounds, including 7.7 and 6.4 by the 6-foot-11, 230-pound Condon.

“Our continuity is going to be very valuable and that’s something that we had zero of last year … as the year wore on different goals,” Golden said.

Kugel was expected to be a leader and star as one of just three returners, along with Richard and Aberdeen. But the Orlando native lost his way, faded as the season wore on and transferred to Mississippi State.

“A big nucleus of our team are five guys that played a lot of minutes last year,” Golden said. “I wouldn’t say a lot with Denzel, but a good amount as the year wore on. So, we’re pouring into that.”

The Gators also added three intriguing transfers, including explosive FAU guard Alijah Martin — a key member of the Owls’ 2023 Final Four team. Power foward Sam Alexis, a 6-foot-9, 225-pound transfer from Chattanooga, and 6-foot-11 Washington State transfer Rueben Chinyelu provide length and athleticism inside.

Alexis is a rising junior from Apopka with even better skills but not yet the physicality of the 6-foot-10, 239-pound Samuel, who had 11 double-doubles in 2023-24 after transferring from Seton Hall. Alexis averaged 10.8 points and 9.1 rebounds, shot 55% and blocked 70 shots.

“He’s just young,” Golden said. “It’s going to take a little bit of time. But he’s going to be a really, really good player for us.”

Meanwhile, shooting guard Isaiah Brown of Orlando Christian Prep committed to Golden’s 2024 class. The 6-foot-5 Brown helped lead his team to a state runner-up finish last season.

“We’ll look a good amount different this year,” Golden said. “But I think our team talent will be even better.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com