The sight of champions past greets your eyes as you walk into the Florida Gators Hugh Hathcock Basketball Complex. Southeastern Conference titles and national championship trophies encased behind glass smile back at you.
For Iona junior transfer guard Walter Clayton Jr., it’s a past he’s motivated to bring back to the state he grew up in.
“It definitely means a lot playing for my home state,” Clayton said. “Just trying to get back to those winning ways.”
Florida Gators men’s basketball used the transfer portal to its advantage when it came to acquiring experience, especially in the backcourt.
One of those transfer additions, Clayton, comes with multiple years of collegiate basketball experience. He transferred from the Iona Gaels this offseason where he was the starting point guard in their 2023 NCAA Tournament run.
The reigning Metro Atlantic Conference Player of the Year now finds himself back in his backyard at UF joining Florida head coach Todd Golden and company.
Clayton’s recruitment this offseason was between two options: follow his former coach Rick Pitino to St. Johns or leave to return to his home state with the Gators.
The decision was all about what gave him more comfort, Clayton said. The Gators came out on top.
“Going really throughout my process, (UF) was consistent,” Clayton said. “So, you know, really just comfortability and being able to come in and play my game, that was it.”
That comfort came with not only being familiar with the program growing up in Florida but also with the help of players like UF junior guard Will Richard.
The Belmont transfer told Clayton he believed the two, combined with sophomore guard Riley Kugel, would make a great backcourt and build something special, Clayton said.
The decision to leave his former head coach of two years was tough, Clayton said. Clayton spoke with Pitino over the phone when he left New York and they ended on good terms.
“Told him I loved him,” Clayton said. “You know, he loved me, obviously we built a relationship.”
The Lake Wales, Florida, native is too familiar with the Sunshine State as he grew up in North Central Florida — playing both football and basketball at Bartow High School. Being close to his family was a big part in his decision to transfer to UF, Clayton said.
The Iona transfer averaged 16.8 points per game last season as the lead guard for the Gaels and brings lessons from Pitino with him to Florida including mental toughness and the ability to play through adversity.
“Every day [Pitino] brings chaos in. It could be a great day, he's gonna make it a bad one. He's gonna expect you to play through it” Clayton said. “So learning that, and also learning don’t drive baseline.”
Clayton has worked with Assistant Coach of Player Development Taureen Green, a former guard who won back-to-back national championships for the Gators.
Green has helped the junior guard, who shot 45.5% from the floor last year, on his shot and form. The former national champion was a big reason why Clayton transferred to UF, he said.
“He helps me a lot obviously,” Clayton said. “Picking his brain, we’re very close. He’s like a big brother to me.”
Clayton’s early impressions of the Gators backcourt was that they shot the ball very well, and often from 3-point range. Perimeter shooting is an emphasis the program wants Clayton to get used to, he said.
Besides the 3-point shooting, the Iona transfer is expecting to run a lot of screen and roll plays at Florida. Something he got used to when he was with Pitino, Clayton said.
“Coach P was just big on space and letting us players make plays,” Clayton said. “So we’re doing a lot of that here. It’s a little different, but a lot of the same concepts.”
Clayton has been impressed with the physicality of Florida’s forwards in practice; especially Seton Hall graduate student transfer forward Tyrese Samuel’s tough play and movement under the basket.
Clayton, who corralled a career-high 136 rebounds last season, hopes UF’s guards can aid the big men this season and become more physical and help in rebounding.
Physicality is a huge part of Clayton’s game on defense. The guard refers to himself as a “very tough” on-ball defender, he said.
“I try to turn over the offensive person as many times as I can,” Clayton said. “I describe myself as a worker.”
There is no definitive point guard running the ball as of now at UF. The chemistry in the backcourt is high for Clayton as all guards trust one another to make a play.
Let alone, the chemistry with the transfers' new teammates has progressed quickly throughout this offseason, he said. A lot of that comes from off and on the court.
Clayton continues to find his fit in Florida’s system and focuses on improving his overall game as UF prepares for the 2023-2024 regular season.
“Taking care of my body a little bit more, keeping my shot up, finishing, left hand development. Just working on my game,” Clayton said.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.