Looking at Tennessee’s projected roster for the 2018-2019 basketball season, it is truly striking how young the team is and therefore how much improvement can be expected. Further illustrating that fact is that all but one of the returning bench players were freshmen (true or redshirt), this past season and two of them will in fact be redshirt sophomores. After looking at what the Vols’ starters, along with the SEC Sixth Man of the Year, can do to improve their games during the offseason, it’s time to take a look at what we might expect from each of the returning bench players after an offseason of development
Walker emerged as an integral piece of this past season’s team, showing outstanding court awareness and passing ability to go with a soft touch around the rim and a physicality that matched up with his brawny physique. However, he struggled mightily on the defensive end against Loyola, where his lack of foot speed and overall conditioning were weaknesses that the Ramblers exploited time and again. That said, in that same game he showed some skills that make you think he’s got All-SEC potential down the line – tenaciously fighting for multiple offensive rebounds using his motor and bulk and making a midrange jumper that showed off his nice shooting stroke. An offseason of physical development will likely turn up a much different looking Walker come November – stronger yet leaner and with an improved ability to much more effectively hedge against ball screens out on the perimeter.
Pons came to Tennessee as a very raw but very tantalizing prospect with uber-athleticism and decent-looking shot. After getting barely spot minutes for most of the season, he slowly worked his way firmly into the rotation to the point where he was often the first non-guard off the bench for the latter part of February and all of March. He was physical on the defensive end and used his length, athleticism, and physicality to be able to defend multiple positions. He also expanded his offensive game, going 2-3 on 3-pointers (his one miss being an ill-advised shot against Loyola) and going from instantly passing the ball when he got it on the wing to slashing to the basket in an attempt to make things happen. The play that showed what he can be next season with a full offseason in Knoxville occurred against Wright State when he drove the baseline and made an up and under layup where he made it look like he was playing on an 8-foot goal – he just looked like a beast, and one who was finally figuring things out. If he can become a legitimate threat to get to the rim from the wing while at the same time honing his three point shot he’ll get more and more minutes at both the 3 and 4 spots
Fulkerson has had an up and down season following missing almost a full year of basketball and strength and conditioning after his injury but continued to get minutes deep into the season. He played quite a bit during Tennessee’s run to the SEC Tournament championship game and then got 15 strong minutes in the Vols big opening game win over Wright State in the NCAA Tournament. During that stretch Fulkerson displayed the kind of skills that Barnes has liked about him since he camped with the Vols before his senior season of high school: nonstop hustle and a willingness to crash the boards along with some raw but developable post moves. However, when forced into more than spot duty with Kyle Alexander out against Loyola, Fulkerson’s lack of bulk and overall offensive game was exploited. He’ll need to fully dedicate himself in the weight room in the offseason to be ready for the rigor of post play at the kind of level Tennessee wants to be playing, while at the same time continuing to hone his post moves to make him a viable if last resort option on the offensive end
Jalen Johnson, the #147 ranked player in his class, came to Tennessee with a rep as a good three-point shooter with explosive leaping ability. Johnson worked to earn some playing time later in the season and showed flashes of the athleticism and shooting that has the staff very excited about his future. He’ll need to continue to get stronger so that he’s not as easily knocked off his spot on dribble drives and at the same time continue to earn Barnes’s trust on the defensive end. He’s got one of the best combinations of athleticism and length on the team though, so it’s imperative that he start to put it together in order for him to be able to get on the court
Kent, like Jalen Johnson the season before, was a strategic redshirt for Coach Barnes this past season. He was ranked in the Top 175 in his class and earned offers over the course of his recruitment from Indiana, Maryland, Notre Dame and Oregon among others. Kent will bring a skill set that is unique to the team: A 6’11, ~235 lb player with range to 25 feet, Kent will give Barnes tons of options in terms of who he can pair him with – that kind of shooting threat from a PF/C will make teams think twice about double-teaming Grant Williams and Tennessee’s other big men in the paint. After a year in the weight room Kent should be able to at least hold his own in the post on defense and on the boards, and his ability to spread the floor will open things up inside not just for Volunteer post players but also driving lanes for Tennessee’s slashers
Darrington has a real chance to fill in for James Daniel III should Tennessee not fill its last roster spot with a Guard. A JUCO College All-American, he’s got great length and uses it well on the defensive end. Darrington came in with a rep as a scorer/shooter, and actually led the team in scoring on the preseason European trip (14.3 points per game over the 3 games). He subsequently missed most of the preseason with an injury that threw him off, but he came back and played quite well, and quite a bit, earlier in the season – he had 10 assists against both High Point and Mercer. He also enjoyed his most productive game in Tennessee’s win over Lipscomb (12/9/17), as his 11 points, five assists and three rebounds were all season-highs, and he averaged 13 minutes a game over first 10 OOC games (with a high of 20 against Lipscomb), then 9 and 11 against Arkansas and Auburn. After that his play fell off and subsequently his minutes did as well. Likely not coincidentally that happened around the same time as the untimely death of one of his best friends from back home, which threw him into a funk mentally. Tennessee is searching for another Guard in the 2018 class and hoping it is someone dynamic who can complement what they already have on the roster in Bone/Turner/Bowden. Regardless of who they add though, Darrington will have a chance to move on from a disappointing individual season and carve out a meaningful role on next season’s team
The Vols will be hoping to add more player to the roster to fill James Daniels III’s spot. Whether that is a high school player or a graduate transfer remains to be seen, as is whether that player is a Guard or Forward. What is really exciting though is that no matter who else is added there are already six players on the roster behind the top 6 that together bring a combination of experience, skill, and unique talent to the team, and are just scratching the surface of their games.