Tennessee basketball: Uros Plavsic’s development is Rick Barnes at his best

Tennessee forward Uros Plavsic (33) reacts during the final moments of the second half against Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.Vandy Ut Mbb 011822 An 026
Tennessee forward Uros Plavsic (33) reacts during the final moments of the second half against Vanderbilt at Memorial Gym in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.Vandy Ut Mbb 011822 An 026 /

There’s a lot that’s frustrating about Rick Barnes. For the second straight season, Tennessee basketball appears to be grossly underachieving despite a top five recruiting class. This is exactly why the Texas Longhorns wanted to fire him back in 2015.

However, while Barnes always seems to struggle with incorporating one-and-done prospects into his system, he has a unique ability to develop guys who stay around. With his play recently, Uros Plavsic seems to be the newest example of that.

In Tennessee basketball’s 68-60 win at the Vanderbilt Commodores Tuesday night, Barnes switched things up and started Plavsic at the five in place of John Fulkerson. The move worked, as Plavsic scored 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds and was a huge part of the reason UT won.

That’s the second time in four games Plavsic has scored double figures, as he hit 14 against the LSU Tigers, and it’s the first time all season he played for over 20 minutes. His true shooting percentage is up to 58.5 when he was in the mid-40s the previous two years.

Now, many of the advanced metrics are down, but that’s because he hasn’t seen a lot of action yet. Barnes had been insisting that Plavsic was developing, and it was only recently that he has finally put that on display. However, Vol fans are liking what they seeing.

In 2019, Plavsic transferred from the Arizona State Sun Devils, where he redshirted in his one year there, to Tennessee basketball. He was granted an eligibility waiver later in the year, but when Barnes put him in, he clearly wasn’t ready, and he has mostly seen limited action.

Despite the advantages he brings as the one seven-footer on the team who also weighs 251 pounds, he remained raw coming from Serbia. As a result, his development was going to take more time than most. That time seems to have worked, and it’s a huge credit to Barnes.

This is nothing new to Vol fans. UT’s most successful year under Barnes was 2018-2019, when they went 31-6, stood No. 1 for three weeks and reached the Sweet Sixteen with a horrible foul call costing them a trip to the Elite Eight.

Everybody in the main rotation on that team was a three-star or below. However, they were all in their third year playing together, so the chemistry and the development under Barnes worked in their favor. Now, Grant Williams is in the NBA, and Jordan Bone, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander have been on rosters in the past.

Developing guys who stay around is what Barnes does best. Ask Yves Pons that. He committed to UT from France with raw athleticism because he was aware of Barnes’ ability to develop talent, and it was the right move. Although playing a different position, Plavsic is doing what Pons did.

Of course, there is one paradox that neesd to be addressed with this. The first if Plavsic replacing Fulkerson. If Barnes is so good at developing talent, why would he put his sixth-year senior back on the bench? Well, it comes down to personnel elsewhere.

Fulkerson is 6’9″, and Olivier Nkamhoua, the Vols’ starting power forward, is 6’8″, so there’s a bit of a height disadvantage with both on the court. However, Fulky isn’t athletic enough to play the stretch-four the way Nkamhoua is.

As a result, if Plavsic has developed, he can bring a different type of mismatch to the court with Nkamhoua, and Fulky and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who is starting to see more minutes, can complement each other on the second team. After all, Huntley-Hatifled is 6’10” and athletic, and Fulky can still be valuable off the bench. Barnes already developed him well.

Now, this doesn’t let Barnes off the hook with his one-and-done talent. Kennedy Chandler is a rare talent, and him playing with three-point specialists like Santiago Vescovi, defensive specialists like Josiah-Jordan James and that inside game should be unstoppable. It’s not looking dominant at the moment, though.

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Either Barnes should build his roster around four-year guys who can develop together, or he should improve with incorporating freshmen who have raw talent into his system. Tennessee basketball has too many elite players to not be better than this. However, in a vacuum, what Barnes has done with Plavsic is impressive.