Jason Anthony Boswell is kind of like the Udonis Haslem of the FIU Panthers.
No current player has been with the Heat longer than Haslem, and no current player has been with FIU longer than Boswell, which is something Panthers coach Anthony Evans appreciates.
“Jason was my first recruit,” said Evans, who will begin his fourth season as FIU’s men’s basketball coach on Friday when Florida Memorial visits. “He believed in this program when other people didn’t.
“We had an APR [graduation rate] penalty and we [weren’t eligible] for the postseason the first year, but he decided to come here. He believed in me and the vision we talked about.”
It helps that Boswell, who is a first cousin of NBA forward Lance Thomas of the New York Knicks, is from New York City, specifically the Bronx. Evans hails from Brooklyn.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Evans said of Boswell. “A lot [of recruits] wouldn’t have come because there was a chance we could have gone on penalty for two years. He is the foundation of this program. Whatever happens from this point forward, he helped build that.”
Just what Evans is building remains to be seen. His first three teams have gone, in order, 15-16, 16-17 and 13-18.
Now he will have to replace 6-11 center Adrian Diaz, who was named Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 2.9 blocks last season. He also averaged 15.3 points and 7.8 rebounds, earning second-team all-league honors.
Another big graduation loss for FIU was Daviyon Draper, who averaged 15.9 points and 7.0 rebounds.
Those departures will put more pressure on an offense that finished 11th in scoring in the 14-team conference.
Evans could decide to draw up even more plays for his leading scorer, 6-3 shooting guard Donte McGill, a senior from Delaware who averaged 16.1 points last season after transferring from a junior college.
And even though FIU has qualified for just one NCAA Tournament in its history, back in 1995, that’s exactly where McGill is setting his sights.
“[Evans] has given me the opportunity to be one of the main guys on this team,” McGill said. “I just want to win, go down as champions. I want to win the league, go on to the [NCAA] Tournament and make noise there.”
Besides McGill, FIU returns two other starters: Boswell, their foundational player who is a 6-6 wing; and Kimar Williams, a 6-1 sophomore point guard from Philadelphia. The two combined to average just 8.8 points last season but provide leadership.
“I have a lot of knowledge that Coach has given me,” Boswell said. “I try to express that to my teammates.”
Elmo Stephen, a 6-7 senior forward who averaged 7.7 points as a reserve last season, could battle to become a starter. Eric Nottage, a 6-2 senior guard who made 10 starts last season, averaged 4.3 points.
To add to that nucleus, Evans, perhaps sensing the urgency to win now, signed five newcomers — and none of them are freshmen.
Center Michael Kessens, a 6-9 graduate student from Switzerland, averaged 3.7 points and 3.5 rebounds last season for the University of Alabama.
Other newcomers to watch are Richard Bivens, a 6-9 junior forward who averaged 10.9 points and 8.2 rebounds at East Los Angeles JC; and Eric Lockett, a 6-5 sophomore guard who averaged 7.3 points and 6.2 assists at Chipola JC.
“We’re way deeper than we were last year,” McGill said. “I think guys just need to be ready to play their roles.”