"I am disappointed with my performance last year," said Lee Thursday afternoon prior to practice. "I think last year I had an off year. I really didn't play well with the adjustment of being the man inside."
The numbers for last season were 13.3 points per game and 6.8 rebounds, a modest improvement over a sophomore year that saw 11.2 points and 6.8 rebounds.
He spent the offseason dropping some of the bulk from last year. He got his quickness back and instead of playing center, he is back to his old familiar power forward position. From a numbers standpoint, he's actually down a little bit this year in scoring (12.6) but his rebounding numbers are the best of his career at 8.0 per game.
And sometimes the numbers don't tell the whole story.
"I'm happy with the way I'm playing ball right now," he said, pleased that he's assumed more of a leadership role to help bring along three young big men (sophomore Chris Richard and freshmen Al Horford and Joakim Noah) and happy that he's doing a better job rebounding. In Southeastern Conference play, especially, he's been averaging nearly 10 rebounds per game including a season high of 17 against Vanderbilt.
But as well as he's playing, it's what's going on with the team that has made him the happiest. This is not your Gator team of the past couple of seasons, the one that shirked away from physical play and the one whose defense showed up only on occasions. Florida is a much tougher team, particularly on the inside, and the Gators are playing tough defense every game out.
The past two games are evidence of the defensive improvement. The Gators held Alabama to a season low 54 points last week, and Tuesday night at Kentucky, the Gators played tough, grind it out defense in a 69-66 loss. Other than a couple of lapses defensively in the second half, the Gators outplayed the fourth-ranked Wildcats.
"I think I that was a game we should have won," he said. "We didn't come out on top but when we play them at home I think that there will be a much better outcome."
In his first three years at Florida, just playing the Wildcats close would have been good enough. Now a close loss is more of a disappointment than blowouts in years past.
"Even on the road at Kentucky it was shades different than years before when we went in there and by halftime we were talking about cutting it to 20 with 10 minutes to go," he said. "I think you saw our team battle there and nobody gave up. We kept fighting as a team." That the Gators had so much fight in them to come back from a 10-point deficit is another indicator of how far the Gators have come. Although Florida has had at least 20 wins the past six seasons, the last three years have ended on a thud once the Gators got into the NCAA Tournament, and in the tournament, the talk has always been that Florida plays too soft and too much of a finesse game to win big during March Madness.
When he compares the physical toughness of this year's team to those of the past three years, he says "Physicality wise and toughness wise these are two completely different teams."
Asked to compare that on a one-to-ten basis, he said, "With things like rebounding margin and our ability to so far stop the majority of the big men we've played against, I'd say we're up there about eight or nine toughness wise. We've shown good poise in a lot of situations. A game like the one at Auburn shows a lot about our team. We really bounced back to win that one and a game like South Carolina at home, I don't think we would have won that one last year."
The Gators are 6-3 in the Southeastern Conference (14-6 overall) with seven SEC games remaining on the schedule. The first three years of his career went by all too quickly, but that pales in comparison to this season.
"This year's gone really fast and we've only got seven SEC games left, but we have a chance to do some big things here," he said. "That Alabama game was a great indication of what our team can do."
In the Alabama game, Florida dominated on the boards, played hard nosed defense both on the perimeter and inside, and on the offensive end, Florida got a good mix of inside play to go with the outside bombing of Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh (both with 18 points). On the inside, Lee had 18 points and Horford 14. Horford also got a career high 18 rebounds.
That's the kind of performance the Gators need Saturday when they travel to Knoxville to face Tennessee in a rematch of a game two weeks ago that the Vols won in overtime in Gainesville. Lee had 11 points and 13 rebounds in that game, but he turned the ball over seven times and he had a critical offensive foul in the overtime.
"I've been doing a decent job but the worst game this year was the first Tennessee game because I had six or seven turnovers," he said. "Two of them were off charges and one of them was in overtime. I have to be careful out there and just keep being aggressive but at the same time not picking up the cheap foul."
In that game, Tennessee chose to double down on him every time he touched the ball and some of the turnovers were off deflections when he couldn't get the ball back out to the perimeter quickly enough. He knows that the Vols will probably come at him again with the same strategy. This time he thinks he will be ready.
"When other teams double I have to make the right decision," he said.
One of the right decisions he made was sticking with his plan to improve his jump shot. In the past two games, he's shown the confidence to knock down the 12-15 footer when he's open.
"I feel great about my jumper," he said. "I think the biggest thing was overcoming the confidence issue about shooting them in a game. It's just to easy for anybody to shoot them in a dark gym over and over and make them. It's a little bit different thing on ESPN shooting them in a tight game before 25,000 people. I've made that adjustment now and just having that confidence to shoot them when I'm open is a big deal."
He's not worried about personal recognition anymore. The David Lee of 2005 has team goals firmly at the top of his list. Looking back on the Kentucky game that he knows in his heart Florida should have won, he's encouraged that there are good things still in store this season for the Gators.
"Any time you can go on the road and have a chance to win when you're playing very mediocre ball and for our club to have a chance to win at one of the top five teams on the road it says a lot about the opportunity that our team has," he said. "If we can end this on a good note this year by making a deep run into the postseason, every other disappointing short postseason and stuff like that will evaporate."