Rick Barnes

Igniting much of the excitement for the Tennessee basketball season is the pair of five-star, freshmen guards, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.

With the bulk of a strong frontcourt back from last season’s team, Tennessee needed help at guard, especially with athleticism and defense. That’s where Johnson (247sports’ No. 19 player) and Springer (247sports’ No. 16 player) come in.

In meeting with the Knoxville media Thursday, both players listed their defensive ability as something they bring to the table. Not the typical characteristic you’d expect from a top 20 shooting guard.

“I’ve always been one that wants to play defense and not let the other team score or let anyone get easy, free points on you or nothing like that,” Springer said. “That’s always been my mindset.”

It may be Springer’s mindset, but it’s Johnson’s bread-and-butter. The Bell Buckle, Tennessee native climbed up the recruiting rankings as he impressed with his defense at both top AAU events and the USA Basketball camp in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Johnson competed twice.

“I feel like my grit and just want to play defense and want to lock another opponent down,” Johnson said is what makes him special at defense. “Just being able to have that type of heart and stigma about myself.”

The 6-foot-5 guard, is a high end athlete who can shut down wings and guard alike. It isn’t the only, or even best, way Johnson feels like he can help the Vols this season.

“I feel like my speed is what helps the team this year,” Johnson said. “Just being able to get a rebound and push the ball. I feel like me being able to lead the break off the rebound sets myself apart.”

Leading the break and Tennessee’s offense is something Johnson may do more of than he expected when he arrived in Knoxville. Despite both Springer and Johnson being recruited as shooting guards, both have worked at point guard this preseason.

“It’s been something I’ve been asked to do since getting here,” Johnson said of playing point guard. “I haven’t been running away from the task. I feel like it’s a great way for me to learn and if that’s what it takes for me to get on the court I’ll do it.”

While playing point guard is more of adding a weapon to Johnson’s repertoire than making an adjustment to his game, Springer has been working at running an offense spending his senior season at IMG Academy playing point guard.

The opportunity to play both against and around some of the best competition at the high school level didn’t just ease the transition to the college game, but also taught him how to play without being an offense’s first option.

“Last year at IMG (Academy) definitely helped me,” Springer said. “Being able to come here I’ve been able to take it to a different level now. Being with coach Barnes he’s definitely big on the point guard spot, so being able to get those reps at practice and when we scrimmage and get up-and-down it’s definitely a big help for when the games come around.”

While his point guard abilities have developed immensely in the past year, it was the Charlotte, North Carolina native’s natural offensive talent that originally made him a five-star recruit.

Springer is a standout shooter and has a smooth game that allows him to score at the basket in and around traffic.

Despite this, Springer mentions his ability to get others involved first when describing his offensive game.

“I feel like I can create for my teammates,” Springer said. “I can drive. I can attack space and really open things up for me and everyone else that’s on the court with me.”

Tennessee will lean on its highly rated freshmen this season in more than just the traditional ways. Springer and Johnson’s diversity of skills should help them be up to the task.

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