With the addition of 7’1 Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic to the roster, Tennessee currently has 13 scholarship players for the 2019-2020 season. However, with most assuming that PG Jordan Bone will choose to stay in the NBA Draft, that will leave one scholarship open. Given that the Vols will only have five true backcourt players in Lamonte Turner, Jordan Bowden, Josiah James, Jalen Johnson, and Davonte Gaines – and Gaines is in massive need of a year with Garrett Medenwald and Tennessee’s Strength & Conditioning program, so counting on him for meaningful minutes this coming year is probably not smart. Therefore, between the need for experienced backcourt depth and the need to keep spots open for what is looking like an all-timer class of 2020 (more on that below), adding a grad transfer makes all the sense in the world. And although the pickings are relatively slim on the grad transfer market at this point, per Jeff Goodman’s transfer rankings the below Guards (ranked overall, including all positions by Goodman) are still available:
20) Jaevin Cumberland, Oakland
26) Kareem South, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
34) Ryan Woolridge, North Texas
43) Donte Fitzpatrick-Dorsey, Tennessee State
48) Nic Thomas, Norfolk State
It does seem likely that Barnes will wait to make any moves until Bone officially decides, so it could be a week or so before we start to hear about any movement in this regard. But there has been no discussion about adding a high school PG since Jalen Cone reclassified and decided to sign with Virginia Tech, so as of now it appears to be a grad transfer or bust for the (likely) 13th scholarship.
When it comes to the aforementioned class of 2020, after adding both fast-rising 2019 signee Oliver Robinson-Nkamhoua and Plavsic to go with the three fall signees, Coach Barnes and the Vols currently have three total spots for the class. One of those is held by 5-star F Corey Walker, who recently transferred from his Florida high school to Hargrave Military Academy (where Gaines just spent a prep year). Walker is a bigtime talent and projects as an instant impact player in both the low post and on the wing and will give Tennessee a 5-star signee in back to back classes for the first time ever. The Vols are also the presumed front-runner for borderline 5-star Wing Keon Johnson who hails from Bell Buckle, TN and will announce his commitment on August 6th to either Tennessee, Virginia, or Ohio State. If Barnes is able to land Johnson, that will not only give the Vols two elite players in the class but also leave just one spot remaining (assuming no future roster movement, which is all we can do at the moment). With the Vols in very good shape for multiple other high-level 2020 prospects (see list below), one could make the case that adding Plavsic – who might have to sit out the 2019-20 season pending a transfer exemption from the NCAA – in particular could be seen as puzzling.
#11 Jaden Springer – CG
#22 Cam Hayes – PG currently in the 2021 class who the Vols have approached about reclassifying
#31 Caleb Love – PG
#40 Jayden Stone – SG
#58 Sam Ruzhentsev – Wing
#62 Bryce Thompson – CG
#65 PJ Hall – PF/C
#85 Matthew Murrell – SG
#141 Chris Moore – PF
#149 Dylan Cardwell
And while Love in particular is directly related to new Tennessee assistant coach Kim English (per Rob Lewis of Volquest.com), this list of prospects for whom the Vols are very much in the mix is all before the upcoming summer AAU circuit, when Tennessee’s newfound spot among the country’s top programs along with English’s new (to Tennessee) connections could add to the list.
With all that talent realistically on the board but likely with only one spot remaining, Vol fans can fairly ask the question: “Why add Plavsic, who though a 4-star coming out of high school and is said to possess good mobility and shooting skill along with his 7’1, 240lb frame, was a) not pursued by Barnes initially despite playing up I-75 in Chattanooga, b) was initially committed to Cleveland State before signing with the Sun Devils, and c) redshirted last season, therefore being a bit of a mystery in terms of development and calling into question why he wasn’t able to see the floor? Especially if he might not even be eligible this coming season.”
Yes, the Vols have a hole in the frontcourt with the loss of Grant Williams (to the NBA), Kyle Alexander and Admiral Schofield (to graduation), and Derrick Walker (to transfer) and with only unproven and inexperienced, albeit potentially talented, backfills. But neither Plavsic nor Robinson-Nkamhoua project as immediate contributors despite what are clearly talented profiles, so I don’t think getting instant production is the reason.
Here’s my answer: As much as Barnes clearly has Tennessee recruiting at a higher level than ever, what he values as much as anything is stability and development. Having the “next man up” ready to step in each and every year and not necessarily bringing in large classes where you’re replacing players who’ve transferred because they’ve been recruited over or are dissatisfied with their role (the anti-Jalen Johnsons) or even one-and-dones that you might not have gotten enough out of (which Barnes experienced a ton of at the end of his run at Texas). Also, with the 2020 class looking to be heavily loaded with guards and wings – and the potential that James might stay for a second season – it makes sense to have more experienced bigs on the 2020 roster to pair them with. So rather than, say, PJ Hall (who the Vols are still recruiting and might even take an OV to Knoxville as early as next month) or a Dylan Cardwell coming in as true freshman with theoretically more talent than Plavsic or even Robinson-Nkamhoua but way less experience, Barnes is making the bet that the the two late 2019 signees will be more ready to help the Vols make a big run. It’s not an across-the-roster bet on experience and development over pedigree, as again the Vols project to have plenty of highly ranked talent, especially at the guard and wing spots (and maybe even down low depending on how they play Corey Walker).
Barnes clearly is confident in his and his program’s ability to develop players who come to Tennessee with a particular set of skills (shooting, athleticism) and the work ethic to improve. And he’s also shown, with guys on the current roster like Jalen Johnson, Zach Kent, and Jalen Johnson as clear examples, that he’s not going to run players off who he sees as putting the kind of work in to get better. That’s what this move with Plavsic seems to be a bet on, even if it’s at the cost of roster spots that very possibly could go to higher ranked/more talented players. Whether that turns out to be the right play remains to be seen, and we likely won’t know until the 2020-21 season, but it’s hard not to trust a guy who’s done what he’s done while at Tennessee.