Point guard was a position of transition for Tennessee during the 2019-20 basketball season. The Vols seemed set there heading into the season with redshirt senior Lamonte Turner poised to lead the offense.
Things were thrown off tilt when Turner decided to have season ending shoulder surgery as his shooting struggled and shoulder remained aggravated from an injury the year before. Tennessee was without reliable options without Turner with Josiah Jordan James being the only other point guard on the roster.
James and Tennessee looked horrible in their first game without Turner, falling 68-48 to Wisconsin.
Tennessee’s stabilizer was only a week away as Santiago Vescovi enrolled at Tennessee for the winter semester. Vescovi started his first game just a week after arriving in Knoxville from Uruguay, the day of the Wisconsin loss, and started the rest of the season.
Vescovi impressed as a freshman averaging 10.7 points, 3.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds a game. Vescovi wasn’t without his flaws, averaging 3.5 turnovers a game and struggling on defense with the speed and athleticism of the American game.
Vescovi feels more confident entering 2020-21 with a full offseason of speed and conditioning work under his belt.
"I feel way more comfortable right now, as I mentioned we are starting to know more of the offense and what coach Barnes wants from us,” Vescovi said. “That is really good for me and all the team because we are on the same page and I feel really good about the offense we are running right now.”
One thing Vescovi will certainly have this season that he didn’t last is guys around him that can also handle the ball and create offense. That should be a weight off his back after averaging over 30 minutes a game a season ago.
For starters, James should be more comfortable handling the ball in his sophomore season. James missed significant practice time and multiple games due to injury last season. The former five star is at full strength now and has touted yoga for improving his flexibility this offseason.
It’s the three guys that didn’t play last year that is exciting to Barnes, especially with the depth that they could provide.
“We think we've got four or five guys that can play there and do the things that we want done, especially in transition,” Barnes said. “We feel good about that spot because Santi (Vescovi) is still learning a lot of what he wasn't able to learn a year ago. Keon (Johnson) and Jaden (Springer) have proven that they are more than capable of learning it and playing it. Josiah (-Jordan James) understands it and VJ Bailey has had to play it just because of the contact tracing. He's probably put more time in there than he has anywhere else on the court, because of our situation. We're doing some different things with our post guys that we like to implement in transition. We think it will not only help those guards but will help us as a team."
The newcomers are headlined by the incoming five star freshmen and top 20 recruits- Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer. Both Springer and Johnson were rated as shooting guards, but Barnes has been pleased with their potential at point guard.
Springer is a highly skilled offensive player who played point guard for a loaded IMG Academy in high school. Springer has experience facilitating and has a speed and athleticism that Vescovi and James can’t match.
Johnson is likely to be used more as an emergency point guard and a consistent reliable ball handler from the wing. The Tennessee native’s athleticism has impressed his teammates so far.
While fans haven’t seen him on the floor, Victor Bailey Jr. isn’t new to the team after sitting out last season after transferring from Oregon where he averaged 7.4 points per game. Bailey used last season as a time to familiarize himself with head coach Rick Barnes’, who is infamously hard on his point guards, expectations.
“Coach is definitely tough but he just wants to get the best out of you,” Bailey said. “I've heard (Jordan) Bone say it plenty of times, he's tough but he just wants the best out of you. He's going to get it, he is great at pulling the best out of you when he needs it. Sitting out really helped me get it under my belt and learn what he wants and when he wants you to put your foot on the gas and take it off. Facilitate and not facilitate and do stuff like that."
The depth at point guard gives Barnes options and the Vols’ head man has said that the best motivation is the bench. We could see Barnes handle his point guards like he did in 2017-18 when James Daniels, Bone and Turner all split playing time and Barnes rode the hot hand. Although, besides Turner, those three were less equipped to play off the ball than perhaps any of the Tennessee guards on this roster
The other benefit will be with the instability of COVID-19 and contact tracing. Barnes has indicated that contact tracing has slowed the Vols’ preseason work down and a player isolating during the season could mean players missing four games in a row.
"Yes, absolutely, because of what could happen we know how important that position on the court is,” Barnes said. “That's where it's been good to have a guy like John Fulkersonaround, he understands the point position, not that he would actually play the point, but he can orchestrate a lot from where he is. … That's another area that we want to be prepared for, but the fact we do have more depth at that spot; it's been a long time since we've had four or five guys that can play that spot.”
Who will start at point guard for Tennessee when they take the floor on Nov. 25 is unclear, but the Vols have more options than at any time of Barnes’ tenure.