Rick Barnes has experienced plenty of “success stories” throughout his long and storied coaching career. But what we’re experiencing this season with Yves Pons could be his greatest, at least at his time at Tennessee, anyway.
Though it’s currently just a small sample size, Pons’ emergence as a legitimate offensive threat for the Vols early on in the 2019-20 season has been a complete shock to most outside of the program. The talented athlete from France has always looked like he should be able to tear up the court, but his first two years at Tennessee were anything but astounding.
Pons flashed some of his potential as a freshman and more as a sophomore, but the highlights were far outweighed by the lowlights and just overall ineffectiveness by Pons on the offensive end.
When Pons signed with Tennessee, he was a four-star prospect who presented a ton of upside thanks to his athleticism and defense. That defensive effort got him minutes early on in his career, but he was a liability at times on offense.
In his first two seasons with the Vols, Pons had more turnovers (27) than assists (22), and he had only made nine of his 28 three-point attempts. The majority of Pons’ offense came on dunks and layups in the paint. Not only that, but after a promising start to the 2018-19 season last year, Pons seemed to lose all confidence in his offensive game as the season went on.
After averaging 4.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in 18.8 minutes a game in the Vols’ first 12 games of the season (seven of which were starts for Pons), the “Flying Frenchman” completely disappeared. In his next 23 games of the season, Pons scored a grand total of 24 points and averaged just 8.1 minutes a game.
Most fans didn’t have a great deal of expectations for Pons heading into his junior year. Fans knew the 6-foot-6, 215-pound wing would have an expanded role for Tennessee this season after all the departures this past offseason, but even the most optimistic of fans didn’t expect Pons to be a viable scoring option to take the pressure off Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden. Most expected that role to be filled by incoming five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James.
But what’s happened to start this season has been nothing short of remarkable.
In Pons’ first 59 games of his Tennessee career, he scored 10 or more points just one time, totaling exactly 10 points to go along with five rebounds in the Vols’ 95-67 victory over Eastern Kentucky on November 28, 2018 of last season.
So far this season, Pons has scored in double figures in all three games the Vols have played.
Pons set a new career-high in the Vols’ first game of the season when he totaled 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting in Tennessee’s 78-63 win over UNC Asheville. One week later, Pons broke that new career-high by scoring 19 points against Murray State by making eight of his 10 field goal attempts. On Saturday against No. 20 Washington, a team that featured two five-star forwards and two talented 6-foot-6 wings, Pons again scored in double figures, dropping 15 points on the Huskies on 7-of-13 shooting.
Through three games, Pons is averaging 16.3 points in 33.7 minutes a game and is shooting 67.7 percent from the floor, including hitting five of his eight shots from behind the three-point line.
Pons came into this season having scored 94 points in his first 59 games as a Vol. He’s now scored 49 points in just three games this season.
Granted, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt since they’re through just three games of the season, but it’s looking like Pons’ improvement is no fluke. Putting up 15 or more points against UNC Asheville or Murray State is one thing, but doing it against a physical, talented, and defensive-minded team like Washington is a different story.
Pons averaged a paltry 1.6 points per game in his first two seasons combined, and he averaged just 2.2 points a contest in 35 games last season. Right now, his scoring turnaround would be one of the biggest in recent memory at Tennessee, and it’s a testament to Rick Barnes and his staff’s ability to develop players.
Barnes’ reputation as an elite player developer proceeded him before he arrived at Tennessee, but it was further cemented by what he was able to do with players like Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Kyle Alexander over the last three seasons. All four of those players were three-star prospects ranked around or below the top-200 of their respective recruiting classes, but all four are now playing professionally, with Williams winning the SEC Player of the Year award twice and both Schofield and Bone earning All-SEC honors and getting drafted into the NBA.
As impressive as the development of those four was, Pons’ emergence has been even more shocking.
Yes, Pons was a four-star and was ranked just outside the top 100 prospects in his class, but that ranking was based largely on potential and athleticism. Pons was extremely raw from a basketball IQ perspective, and his offensive game needed a ton of work.
The only one of the four mentioned above who compares to Pons in terms of lack of experience is Kyle Alexander. The Canadian big man had only played basketball for a couple years before joining Tennessee, and he wasn’t afforded the luxury of redshirting because of the Vols’ immense lack of depth in the frontcourt.
Alexander started out averaging just 1.7 points a game as a freshman, which is similar to Pons. But Alexander’s growth was more gradual, and he never turned into a double-digit scoring threat on offense. He never had the leap from one year to the next like we’re seeing with Pons.
In his first two years on campus, Pons looked like a spare puzzle piece. He couldn’t find his role on the court on offense, and he often looked lost with the ball in his hands unless he was driving to dunk.
But this year, it looks like Pons has found his comfort zone on offense, and his hard work of improving his shot and honing his craft in the offseason is paying off.
Pons’ scoring average of around 16 points a game likely won’t stay the same the rest of this season, but he’s in line for one of the biggest scoring upswings from one year to the next in recent UT history regardless.
When Barnes took over as head coach, he inherited a talented shooting guard in Kevin Punter. In his first year with the Vols, the JUCO transfer averaged 10.3 points in 31 minutes a game in Donnie Tyndall’s one and only season at Tennessee. In Barnes’ first year at UT, Punter saw his scoring output increase by almost 12 points a game thanks to Barnes working with him to improve his jump shot, as he averaged 22.2 points a game in 34.1 minutes. Punter’s 2015-16 season could’ve been even more outstanding had he not suffered a season-ending injury late in the year.
A few other notable single-season scoring improvements over the last 15 years of Tennessee basketball include Armani Moore (3.1 points in 2013-14 to 10.3 points in 2014-15), Josh Richardson (10.3 points in 2013-14 to 16.0 points in 2014-15), Jordan McRae (8.6 points in 2011-12 to 15.7 points in 2012-13), and Jeronne Maymon (2.6 points in 2010-11 to 12.7 points in 2011-12).
Rick Barnes and his coaching staff have shown off their skills as developers numerous times at Tennessee already. But the drastic turnaround of Yves Pons exemplifies that more than any other player so far.
This season is just getting started. Who knows how high “Air Pons” can fly?