Both Tennessee basketball Volunteers blue-chip freshmen could come off the bench.
Half the reason there is so much hype behind Tennessee basketball entering the 2020-2021 season is due to the Vols’ top five recruiting class. UT added two five-stars in shooting guard Keon Johnson and combo guard Jaden Springer.
Four-star forwards Corey Walker Jr. and Malachi Wideman, the latter of whom wouldn’t play until the football season ended, add to that ranking, but Johnson and Springer are the real stories. With the loss of Jordan Bowden, these guys are the face of the hype behind UT this year.
However, there’s a chance neither of them starts. With Yves Pons returning for his senior season, Tennessee basketball now has the chance to run a rotation that uses size as an advantage. Rick Barnes’ history shows he prefers that.
Given the makeup of the returning talent, Rocky Top could play much bigger this year. John Fulkerson is locked in at center. He was UT’s leading scorer last year and his returning for his fifth-year senior season.
Meanwhile, the Vols added Sacred Heart Pioneers transfer E.J. Anosike in the offseason. At 6’7″ 245 pounds, Anosike averaged over 15 points and 11 rebounds last year. Given his production and efficiency, Barnes could insert him into the starting lineup at the power forward.
Pons, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, played the four last year. However, he stands at 6’6″ 215 pounds and shot 34.9 percent from the three-point line. As a result, Barnes could easily move him to small forward.
Two years ago, Grant Williams played power forward with Admiral Schofield at center, and Pons has a similar profile to Schofield while Anosike has a similar profile to Williams. Size advantages can be huge in the SEC.
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Then there’s the point guard situation. Santiago Vescovi is the returning starter. Oregon Ducks transfer Victor Bailey Jr., who redshirted last year, is likely to be the backup, but he could win the starting job. Either way, these are the two options there.
If Barnes went this route, that would leave only one opening for Johnson or Springer to start. However, there’s another former five-star returning for his sophomore season in Josiah-Jordan James, and he could win that spot.
James, who stands at 6’6″ 207 pounds, was banged up through lots of last year. He still averaged seven and a half points, nearly three assists, nearly one steal and shot 36.7 percent from three and 77.8 percent from the free throw line. He is a combo guard, but with more development, he could definitely play the two, and he adds another ball-handler.
Now, fully healthy, James could step into the full-time two-guard situation. Grant Ramey of GoVols247 wrote just last month about James being poised for a breakout season. Barnes said earlier in the year that James had transformed his body in the offseason.
Taking all that into account, there’s a very good chance Barnes goes big James gets the nod at the two. At that point, Springer and Johnson would come off the bench, with Johnson playing the two and Springer playing the three. Don’t put it beyond Barnes to keep Tennessee basketball’s two five-stars from starting this year.