Yves Pons is as gifted of an athlete as Tennessee has on its campus.
The sophomore forward’s start to the season reflected just that, earning a starting spot in the fifth game of the season. Part of that had to do with Lamonte Turner being sidelined with a shoulder injury, but Pons had also established himself as an energizer bunny coming off of the bench.
The Frenchman proceeded to start 13 straight games, and in a win over Samford, played a season-high 32 minutes. But following a sluggish start to conference play, Pons once again found himself relegated to the bench.
“I think guys can go through slumps defensively as well as they can on the offense end,” Rick Barnes said during his Monday press conference. “Everyone thinks slumps happen offensively. I think Yves right now is probably pressing a little bit.”
In the nine games since SEC play began on Jan. 5, Pons is shooting just 31 percent from the field, 25 percent from the three-point line, and is averaging 1.2 points per game. He’s averaging just 12.5 minutes over those last nine contests.
More concerning is his contributions on the defensive end, though. Pons is viewed as one of the best defenders on the team. It’s why he was placed in the starting lineup, because Barnes likes his length to be matched up on the other team’s primary ball-handler. But he hasn’t been living up to that billing as of late.
“He’s not on edge the way he needs to be, and he knows it,” Barnes explained. “He talked with Coach (Mike) Schwartz the other day. He said he lets his mind start thinking that because we’re scoring, he has to do that too.
“Each player has to do their part, play the role they have to play. They struggle within that role sometimes.”
Pons’ mental struggles on the defensive end have led to him being out of stance and not playing with the edge needed as Barnes mentioned. And as a result, he’s seen his minutes reduced.
“His (struggle) has nothing to do with anything other than, if anything, he’s got himself locked up because he’s trying so hard, to a fault,” Barnes said. “You can’t play like that. You can’t be afraid of mistakes. You can’t play trying to be perfect, because it’s not a game of perfect.”
As Tennessee’s first-ever men’s basketball player from France, Pons’ future within the program remains bright. With large hands, broad shoulders, and a well-developed upper body, his athlete athleticism won’t let him be held down for long. Right now, the true sophomore is so worried about letting his teammates down, he’s not allowing himself to get lost within the game.
“When he feels he is (letting his teammates down), he really does take it personal, which is a good thing obviously,” Barnes said. “But the fact is he’ll come back, he’ll be fine.”