This time last year, Tennessee men’s basketball head coach Rick Barnes and his staff were under the assumption that Jordan Bone would be back with the Vols for his senior year for the 2019-20 season. Bone had showed growth in his first two years, and Barnes and his coaches knew the Nashville point guard had NBA potential, but most assumed Bone wouldn’t leave after his junior season and still needed some more collegiate development.
Then the 2018-19 season happened, and Bone had a breakout year.
The 6-foot-3, 180-pound point guard had one of the best single seasons as a point guard in school history last season. Bone set the school record for best assist-to-turnover ratio in a season, compiling a 2.91 ratio. The junior dished out 215 assists on the year, the third-most in a single season in UT history, and he was a Second Team All-SEC selection at the end of the regular season.
All in all, Bone averaged 13.5 points, 5.8 assists, and 3.2 rebounds a game in his 37 games. He used that strong junior campaign as a springboard into the pros, and he was selected with the No. 57 overall pick in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft. Bone is now on the expanded roster of the Detroit Pistons.
So how does Tennessee fill the hole Bone’s absence leaves on the roster? Head coach Rick Barnes has a plan.
During Tennessee’s media day on Friday afternoon in Knoxville, Barnes was asked about the Vols’ point guard position. Redshirt senior Lamonte Turner is the obvious choice to slide into Bone’s role as the floor general of the Vols’ team, but Turner has played better in an off-ball role throughout his career. That isn’t to say he can’t play point guard, though.
Last season, Turner averaged 3.8 assists and had an assist/turnover ratio of 2.5 for the whole year. In fact, Turner actually out-performed Bone as both a passer and scorer in Tennessee’s SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament runs last season.
But Turner won’t be the only one getting minutes at point guard.
According to Barnes, former five-star Josiah-Jordan James has been studying the point guard position for months, and he’ll see time as UT’s primary ball-handler in games as well.
“I can tell you that all summer Josiah spent his entire time learning that position because it’s the most demanding position that we have on our team,” Barnes said on Friday. “I thought he made great strides with it. This summer we were making sure Lamonte got healthy, and Josiah’s had to deal with a groin injury.”
Despite those minor injuries, both Turner and James appear to be the most likely candidates to man Tennessee’s point guard spot. But when it comes to who will play more at the one, Barnes isn’t ready to say just yet.
“I want to move them around, because I don’t want any (team) to get locked in because I think defenses can really game plan for them,” Barnes explained. “How it breaks down minutes-wise and who is there most of all, I don’t know who it’s going to be. I really don’t.
“I know that we’re counting on both of those guys to play a lot of minutes, and I think they’re really going to complement each other.”
Last season, Turner was banged up all season. He had offseason shoulder surgery and missed a chunk of the season early in the year. Even once he returned, he was never fully healthy. Despite not playing at 100 percent, Turner still played a lot of minutes. In his 28 game appearances (19 of which were starts), Turner averaged 31 minutes a game. He spelled Bone at point guard at times, especially later in the season.
This year, Turner will likely play a ton of minutes again, but he’ll have help from James. But point guard isn’t the only spot James is likely to play for the Vols this season. The 6-foot-6, 208-pound guard is versatile enough to fill a lot of roles for UT, and he’s always looking to help out his teammates on the court regardless of where he’s playing.
“We’ll use him in any and every way that we have to because he’s the kind of player that (is) very versatile,” Barnes said of James. “I think he’s kind of an unselfish person that’s willing to do whatever you ask him to do, whatever his teammates need him to do, but I think we’ll use him every way that you can possibly think about using a guy. He’s that versatile that playing the point, playing off the ball, doing whatever, he’s always going to try to make winning plays.
“He loves to pass the ball, maybe to a fault right now. That’s something that we’re trying to get him to understand. He needs to look for his shot a little bit more than he already has done, but his instincts have always been ‘what can I do to run the team and get my teammates in places where they can score and get better,’ which is a great trait to have for anybody that’s a lead guard. But we do think that he has to get a little bit more of a scoring mentality.”
As a senior at Porter-Guad School, James was named the 2019 Gatorade Player of the Year in South Carolina and averaged 29.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 5.3 blocks per game. That’s the kind of versatility and passing that can benefit Tennessee at any number of positions, not just at point guard.
If Turner and James aren’t enough for Barnes at the point, he has a third option he feels comfortable turning to as well.
Senior Jordan Bowden hasn’t played a lot of point guard at Tennessee, but it’s a role that he’s becoming more familiar with so he can fill in when needed. And Barnes feels it adds more to Bowden’s game and opens up more possibilities on the floor for this season.
“I’d like to hope that even our third perimeter out there — I’d like to think that he’s capable of running the point at times,” Barnes said of Bowden. “I think the more you can move players around, it makes them more effective. I like the versatility. If you’re at practice today, you’re going to see Jordan Bowden playing the point against Lamonte Turner because Josiah won’t practice today. I think that benefits Jordan Bowden probably as much as anybody.”
Last season, Tennessee was one of the best passing teams in all of men’s basketball. The Vols finished the 2018-19 season with 660 assists on the year, the fourth-most among any team in Division I last season. That mark is also the new school record for most team assists in a season, passing the 637 assists the 2007-08 team totaled.
Even with the departure of Bone, it sounds like the Vols will be a very passing-oriented team again this year. Rick Barnes trusts his roster to be able to fill the void Bone leaves behind, and his players seem plenty capable of proving him right.