The Tennessee men's basketball program's signing class for the 2020 recruiting cycle was No. 4 in the country on the 247Sports.com composite, which combines the rankings of 247Sports, ESPN and Rivals.com.
The highly rated trio of Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Corey Walker will enter Knoxville with high expectations because this marks only the third time in recent history the Volunteers have had a signing class with as many as three players ranked among the nation's top 70 prospects. The others were in 2006 — with Duke Crews at No. 25, Ramar Smith at No. 32 and Wayne Chism at No. 41, per 247 — and 1996, with Charles Hathaway at No. 3, C.J. Black at No. 66 and Isiah Victor at No. 67, according to HoopGroup.com.
But how high should those expectations be? For this, the Times Free Press went back and looked at the previous four players who had the same ranking at the same position, then averaged it out for the study.
Springer (No. 3 combo guard): Rated the No. 14 overall prospect in the country, Springer (6-foot-5, 195 pounds) was the last of the Vols' three signees back in November. He is a tough, physical, athletic guard who defends well and can create shots for teammates. Being the third-best combo guard has been a really, really good spot for prospects in the past four seasons, and in this case the averages have been fairly consistent. The player rated there last season — Kentucky's Tyrese Maxey — averaged 14 points per game, the best in the sample. The low end was Arizona's Kobi Simmons, who averaged 8.7 points and is the lone one-and-done prospect in the group. If Tennessee can get similar averages to those Stanford's Daejon Davis put together in his first season (10.7 points, 4.8 assists, 4.0 rebounds) from Springer as a freshman, there will be no complaints. Averaging things out suggests the numbers will be different, but only slightly.
Projections: 11.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists.
Johnson (No. 4 shooting guard): Johnson (6-5, 180) missed a good portion of his final season of high school due to injury, but that isn't expected to be a detriment in 2020-21. Although he is the same height as Springer, Johnson is considered a shooting guard more than a combo guard. Obviously, Vols fans would be more than pleased if Johnson were to mirror North Carolina freshman Cole Anthony's first season (18.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists), but that's unlikely; Anthony was the primary offensive option for a poor Tar Heels team that would not have qualified for the NCAA tournament, had it not been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. That won't be the case next season for the Vols, who have a roster fully equipped to make a deep tournament run. Instead, Arizona's Rawle Alkins would be the better player comparison. Alkins averaged 10.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists in his first college season in 2016-17, then played one more year before entering the 2018 NBA draft pool but not getting selected.
Projections: 11.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.4 assists.
Walker (No. 10 power forward): It's almost unfair to compare Walker (6-8, 210) to some of the power forwards who came before him. The position itself is a difficult one to evaluate from a projection standpoint because of different skill sets framed in similar-sized bodies. Players at his ranking have had decent starts to their college careers, with the exception being Arizona's Lauri Markkanen, who was even better as he averaged 15 points, shot 42% from 3-point range and was an NBA lottery pick of the Chicago Bulls. With John Fulkerson's ascension to top-tier player for Tennessee toward the end of this past season; another year of development for Olivier Nkamhoua, who will be a sophomore; the addition of graduate transfer E.J. Anosike; the ability of the Vols to go small with rising sophomore guard Josiah-Jordan James (6-6, 208) at the No. 4 position and the possible return of Yves Pons for his senior season — he has entered the draft pool — it's unclear to see where Walker fits in right away. He might only match last season's production of Michigan State freshman Malik Hall (4.6 points, 3.7 rebounds), but if he reaches the projections, nobody would complain.
Projections: 8.3 points, 5.0 rebounds.