KNOXVILLE — As his interview session ended before Thursday afternoon's practice at Pratt Pavilion, Jordan McRae smiled and jokingly compared himself to Rajon Rondo.
Tennessee's leading scorer's assists are up during the Volunteers' four-game winning streak, but he still has a ways to go to reach the production of the former Kentucky and current Boston Celtics star point guard, who's averaged at least 11 assists per game the past three seasons.
And Cuonzo Martin wants McRae to keep it that way.
"I don't want him to look to get assists. I want him to look to score," the coach said. "Now he's done a good job of getting assists because of how teams are defending him, so he's making good decisions with the ball and he's trying to cut his turnovers down.
"But I don't want him to be out there trying to get 10 assists a game. That's not his job. He's built to score the ball, and we need him to do that."
The senior has done plenty of that for Tennessee this season heading into today's game against Texas A&M, but he's picked up his distribution numbers during the winning streak.
In three of the last four games, McRae has finished with five assists, and he has 17 in the past four games after he had just 22 in Tennessee's first 10 games. In the past two years, he averaged less than two assists per game.
After Tennessee's disappointing loss to North Carolina State a couple of weeks ago, McRae pledged he needed to do a better job of getting his teammates involved, and while he's done that, it's helped, too, that fellow guards Antonio Barton and Josh Richardson have started to knock down open jump shots more consistently.
"I'm just trying to shoot good shots and really trying to do a good job of getting everybody involved," McRae said. "I draw some guys sometimes, so I've got to make those passes and trust that we're going to hit shots. I think we're doing a good job of hitting shots.
"Josh and Antonio are doing a great job knocking down shots, so especially when guys are hitting shots like that, you've got to make sure you find them."
Martin has stressed that he and Tennessee need McRae to score and look to score, and he attributed his best player's recent spike in assists to a couple of factors.
"I think it's a case of him trusting his guys to make shots, but it's also how teams defend him," Martin said. "He knows he's not going to get a lot of clean looks. Sometimes he has to take tough shots, and he does that, but it's also a case of him attacking, two guys are on him, pitching and finding his guys and making plays."
McRae is averaging a career-high 18.9 points per game this season, and he's shooting 47 percent from the field and 37 percent on 3-pointers after shooting 42 and 35.5 percent, respectively, last season.
His defense is improved, Martin said after McRae and Tennessee held Virginia's Joe Harris (16.3 ppg last season) to seven points on 2-of-9 shooting.
"If Coach Martin's talking about my defense being good, I must be doing something right," McRae quipped.
Martin believes McRae has developed from a scorer into more of a two-way player.
"I used to be very hesitant to put him on key guys, and we'd try to scheme and not have him on certain guys, but he's done a great job and he's accepted those challenges," the coach said. "I think it started against Virginia, when he wanted to guard Harris. I thought he did a tremendous job in defending him.
"I don't even notice him defensively, because he's done such a good job."
McRae, in turn, credited Martin with his increased offensive efficiency this season.
"I just think Coach Martin is doing a good job of calling plays where I'm not having to beat one or two guys," he said. "I'm getting open shots and getting chances to drive when the lane's clear. I think everybody's doing a good job of knowing where everybody wants the ball."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...