KNOXVILLE — During the regular season, Tennessee beat writer Gene Henley will offer three observations about the Volunteers basketball team after rewatching the game from the night before.
Here is the first installment, coming after the Volunteers beat NCAA Division II program Eastern New Mexico 107-59 in an exhibition Wednesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena.
1. More James at the point: So much has been made about who could be the Vols' third scoring option behind senior guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner. I don't think the answer is all that important, though, because with a tweak of the lineup (which I believe will happen sooner rather than later), Tennessee will have a potent offense. At 6-foot-6, Josiah-Jordan James has the ability to create opportunities for others as well as himself. He was injured and had to miss the preseason, which slowed his progress, but the Vols will be best served with him as their starting point guard. That will give both Bowden and Turner more opportunities to play off the ball and for James to create catch-and-shoot opportunities for the two potent scorers, as well as chances to get in the paint and get open looks for the frontcourt players. I made a comparison Wednesday night of James to current Philadelphia 76ers guard/forward Ben Simmons in part because when you watch James play, his jump shot is still a work in progress but he can affect the game in so many ways (he had 10 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals Wednesday night). His length, strength and awareness will make him an above-average defender, which is huge for a freshman.
2. Olivier time? I believe 6-8 forward Olivier Nkamhoua is the most important freshman on the roster, based largely on the fact that nobody on the team has a skill set like him. Ratings in basketball are the most overhyped measurement about a player because they project potential future success and not how good he currently is, but I'd guess that wherever Nkamhoua was rated, it was too low. With his size, he has the ability to naturally put the ball on the floor and create for others, shown by one possession in the final minute of the first half when he caught the ball in the right corner of the court, took two dribbles into the lane and zipped a pass over his head to a wide-open Bowden for a 3-pointer. Another one of the freshmen who has been slowed by injury — Barnes said he was kicked in the calf in a recent scrimmage against Davidson — Nkamhoua has to learn how to use his strength and probably needs to improve more as a shooter, but I expect him to be a large part of what the Vols are trying to do this year.
3. Frontcourt concerns: It's no secret the loss of Tennessee's entire starting frontcourt from last season has put the Vols in a tough spot. It has led to them employing more of a guard-heavy attack, but they're going to need the sorts of contributions junior John Fulkerson (11 points, 10 rebounds on Wednesday), junior Yves Pons (five points, five rebounds, four blocks), Nkamhoua and sophomore Zach Kent (six points, four rebounds) can provide. The interior won't be a strength this season for the Vols, even if 7-foot-1 Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic is granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA. If Plavsic is cleared and he and Fulkerson can combine to average 14 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per game, it's a win. If not, they're going to need to get that production from the trio of Fulkerson, Kent and Pons.