Tennessee basketball head coach Rick Barnes knew he was getting a power forward with shocking athleticism and elite defensive ability from five-star freshman prospect Brandon Huntley-Hatfield when he committed to Tennessee in mid-April.
Barnes is a coach who has shown he won’t hesitate to give a starting nod to experience over potential when minutes are a question mark on the court, especially in the early stages of the year. In last season’s opener against Colorado, Barnes had two first round NBA selections, Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson, come into the game off the bench.
Once again, Barnes elected for a mostly upperclassmen starting five in Tennessee’s exhibition matchup against Lenoir-Rhyne, apart from Kennedy Chandler, a true point guard opposed to Santiago Vescovi’s off-ball prowess. Junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua started ahead of Huntley-Hatfield in the lineup.
So it was surprising for Barnes when Huntley-Hatfield came off the bench and led the Vols in plus/minus on the afternoon in a 103-62 blowout, scoring 15 points and terrorizing the boards for 12 rebounds.
“I’ll tell you (Huntley-Hatfield) surprised me today a little bit,” Barnes said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect. He’s taken a giant step in terms of understanding more. He’s a guy that I’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t get better and better each day.”
Huntley-Hatfield is far from an average big man. The 6-foot-10 freshman led both squads in rebounding and recorded his first double-double of his Vols career against Lenoir-Rhyne in what was an almost mistake-free performance on the stat sheet.
Huntley-Hatfield recorded just 2 personal fouls and committed zero turnovers in his efficient debut.
He also showcased a surprising amount of skill with the basketball in his hands, facilitating plays for others in a point guard-esque manner. If Huntley-Hatfield got the ball in the paint, it often ended with 2 points on the board.
“Brandon loves passing …” Barnes said. “I actually heard Brandon telling the guys, ‘if they want to double team me, I’ll find you.’”
“He really sees the court and you asked if it’s an advantage any time you have post guys who can pass the ball — it’s a huge advantage having guys who can move and get their hands on it.”
Barnes and Tennessee will see Huntley-Hatfield play a lot of minutes in what could be his only year with the Vols. The offseason improvement of Uros Plavsic, Nkamhoua and return of super-senior John Fulkerson will present a myriad of rotations for the Tennessee coaching staff to work with.
Huntley-Hatfield feels no pressure coming off the bench or fighting for quality minutes, though. He has plenty of experience in that arena.
“I’ve been in that position before,” Huntley-Hatfield said. “My sophomore year of high school I went to IMG Academy playing against Armando Bacot, Josh Green and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl.”
“I had to watch them, sit behind them. I know what it’s like to compete for playing time, I know what it’s like to come in and start the game and basically play the whole game. For me, it’s fun because I’m competitive and I just love basketball and getting better.”