Tennessee brought in six newcomers this past offseason, including four recruits in the 2019 signing class and two transfers. In our six-part series, we’re giving Vol fans a chance to get to know Tennessee’s freshmen players better.
In Part I, we take a look at the Vols’ longest-standing committed player in their 2019 class, small forward Davonte Gaines.
Way back on July 1st, 2017, Davonte Gaines announced his commitment to Tennessee in men’s basketball. At that point, the Vols were coming off a 16-16 season in Rick Barnes’ second year as head coach. The scrawny Gaines was viewed as a four-star prospect with a lot of upside heading into the fall of 2017.
Since then, a lot has changed both with Gaines and Tennessee. But the Buffalo, New York native never wavered on his pledge to the Vols, and now he’s on campus and currently practicing with UT’s collection of players for the 2019-20 roster after signing with Tennessee in the fall of 2018.
Gaines played for Health Sciences Charter School in Buffalo and graduated from there in 2018. Instead of immediately joining Tennessee, he took a prep year and transferred to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Virginia. Hargrave has a prestigious post-graduate program for high school basketball players that has helped produce numerous collegiate basketball players and NBA players such as David West, Josh Howard, Sam Young, Marreese Speights, PJ Hairston, and Terry Rozier. Hargrave has also sent several players to Tennessee, such as Tyler Smith, Stanley Asumnu, Jabari McGhee, and Harris Walker.
Gaines is just the latest in a long line of basketball players to use Hargrave as a training ground for his skills, and now he’s ready to contribute to the Vols.
I spoke with Hargrave head coach Lee Martin about Gaines and what Vol fans should expect from one of Tennessee’s newest faces. According to Martin, Gaines’ ability to fill out a stat sheet in multiple ways makes him stand out above other players.
“Davonte isn’t necessarily a one-trick pony. He’s not just a scorer or just a defender,” Martin told me. “I would say Davonte’s biggest tool is he’s able to do a lot of things very well. He can score in numerous different ways. He can defend, he can rebound, he can defend multiple positions. He can really do a lot of things to affect the game and help his team win. That’s what he did with us. He averaged double figures, had a lot of assists, and made very few turnovers. He actually took really good care of the ball and made good decisions. He shot a nice percentage and led us in steals.
“He’s what you would call a ‘stat stuffer.’ I think that’s his biggest tool. That’s something he did at Health Sciences, and that’s something he did on our stage here at Hargrave at the national prep level, and I think we all expect him to do the same thing at the next level at Tennessee.”
At Health Sciences, Gaines was named to the 2018 All-Western New York First Team in his senior season after averaging 18 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 4.0 steals, and 2.5 blocks per game. He recorded 22 double-doubles, four triple-doubles, and a remarkable three quadruple-doubles in his final year at Health Sciences. He holds the program record for most points in a game with 52, and he was easily a 1,000-point scorer in his career at Health Sciences.
Gaines’ performances at Health Sciences in Buffalo earned him the nickname of “The Big Ticket.” At Hargrave, that ability to stuff the statsheet didn’t go away.
In less minutes than he played at Health Sciences, Gaines still managed to do a little bit of everything for Hargrave. He averaged around 14 points, six rebounds, and three assists a game on offense, and as Lee Martin said, he led the team in steals as well.
On offense, Gaines’ length and athleticism lets him do a lot of things effectively. According to Martin, Gaines’ mid-range game was unparalleled, and he started to develop a more consistent three-point shot as the season went along.
“Later on in the year, he started shooting the three more consistently. He gained a little more confidence,” Martin stated. “He’s got a really nice mid-range pull-up game. He’s 6-foot-8, he’s got a really extremely long wingspan, I believe it’s 6-foot-10. He can stop on a dime and raise up from 10 to 15 feet away. It’s really hard to contest that shot. He’s got great lift and speed off of that. He’s able to post up and has a mid-range post game as well as some post moves.
“He’s becoming a complete offensive player I believe.”
But scoring isn’t all Gaines can do well. In fact, Martin believes Gaines has an attribute that’s gone overlooked by many that really made him valued by Tennessee’s coaching staff.
“One thing he can really do that I think a lot of people don’t realize yet is he can really pass,” Martin said of Gaines. “He’s a willing passer. He’ll give up a good shot for a great shot, which are things I know Coach Barnes will really love about him.”
Gaines’ length and wingspan helps him out on defense as well. Martin states that Gaines can guard four different positions thanks to his quick feet and long arms.
“He’s long, he’s got great feet, and he can guard bigger guys because of his length,” Martin stated. “He can guard a guard, he can switch ball screens. Right now, he can comfortably guard a one through four because of his versatility defensively.”
Not only is Gaines a good player, but he’s a good person, too.
Rick Barnes and his coaching staff have made a point of bringing in high-character student-athletes to Tennessee, and Gaines is no exception. He was a leader on and off the court at Hargrave, and Martin expects that will carry over to Tennessee, too.
“That’s probably the best part about him is that he’s a better person than he is a player, and he’s a really good player,” Martin said. “He’s an incredible young man. He wants to work, he wants to win as a team. He’s a team guy. He’s willing to sacrifice his own success sometimes for the team. He was a leader on our team this year. Most of our guys looked to him for guidance and leadership.
“He’s a wonderful young man that Vol Nation will embrace and will enjoy to have. He has a big smile, and it’s contagious. He’s really fun to be around.”
If there’s a downside to Gaines, it’s definitely his lack of weight. On Tennessee’s official roster, Gaines is listed as 6-foot-7, 166 pounds. And according to Martin, Gaines gained about 10 or so pounds while at Hargrave. So he was even skinnier while he was at Health Sciences.
Gaining strength and weight will be the biggest thing for Gaines in his first couple years at Tennessee.
“His strength is coming along. That’s one thing he’s improved on here, but he knows he’s got a ways to go,” Martin said. “He has to continue to hit the weight room and continue to build that college body like Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams. He’s definitely not there yet, but hopefully in a couple years he will be.”
For both Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams, it was an opposite problem than what Gaines faces. Both of those players needed to trim bad weight and add more muscle. For Gaines, a more apt comparison could be Kyle Alexander and Jalen Johnson.
When Alexander joined the Vols, he was a little under 215 pounds at 6-foot-9. When he graduated, he was 6-foot-11 and weighed 222 pounds. Alexander was still skinny, but he had better weight and was more SEC-ready year after year. Similarly, Johnson joined the Vols at 6-foot-5, 177 pounds. He’s now listed as a 6-foot-6, 187-pound redshirt junior this upcoming season.
Once Gaines puts on more weight, he should be physically ready.
It remains to be seen how much Gaines will play as a true freshman for the Vols, if he plays at all. But Martin believes that if his number is called into action, Gaines will be ready to contribute.
“I know what an incredible team they (the Vols) have and what an incredible culture they have. I don’t know (if he’ll play much as a true freshman), but I do know that he’s going to be an asset and will buy in to help them get wins,” Martin stated. “If his name is called, I think he’s going to be ready.”