RTI contributor Robert Hughes is the author of this article
As a four-star recruit and the No. 1 recruit coming out of France in 2017, Yves Pons’ athleticism was never in question. Described as having a physique “like a Greek god” by former teammate Grant Williams, hopes were through the roof for the athletic specimen when he joined the Vols.
Yet, for two seasons, the freakish bounce and explosiveness never translated into anything other than the occasional high-flying alley-oop or dunk.
Offensively, despite his natural talents, Pons was a liability.
This season has so far proven exactly the opposite. The retooling — nay, the rebirth — of the 6-foot-6 forward has given Pons the opportunity to change his narrative from “will he meet expectations?” to the Vols’ X-factor.
Entering the 2019-2020 season, the predictions for Tennessee basketball centered around many similar storylines. First, the departure of four of the most beloved and talented players in Tennessee basketball’s history in Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, Jordan Bone, and Kyle Alexander would loom large on this year’s team. Second, the void that those four players left would have to be filled by senior guards Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, and UT’s role players over the last couple years would have to step up.
For the most part, those predictions were right. Tennessee has had to find new ways to score and defend this season, especially in the post. The duo of Bowden and Turner, for the most part, have shouldered the majority of the load, especially on the offensive end.
Bowden and Turner are both averaging career-highs in points and rebounds, with Bowden averaging 15.4 points per game and Turner scoring 14.3 points per game. Bowden recently put up a career-high 12 rebounds against UT-Chattanooga in his first double-double as a Volunteer. Turner leads the SEC and is fifth in the NCAA with a career-high 7.9 assists per game.
Even so, the largest storyline for the Vols thus far is the emergence of the uber-athletic Pons.
Career-highs for Turner and Bowden were to be expected. What’s come from Pons, however, was not.
Not only is Pons averaging career-highs in almost every offensive category, including scoring (12.4 PPG), rebounding (5.3 RPG), and shooting (53.3 FG percent), but Pons’ presence on defense has given the Vols a serious threat around the rim, as Pons is blocking an SEC-best 2.6 shots per game in the first seven games of the season.
Considering Pons averaged just 2.2 points per game, 1.8 rebounds, and 0.4 blocks in his first 59 games as a Vol, to call this season “incredible” would be a vast understatement.
In Tennessee’s only loss of the season thus far to Florida State, Pons was the only sign of life and consistent scoring for the Volunteers outside of the free throw line, finishing the game with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. Pons’ dunks, including a powerful baseline jam, were the only bits of excitement in an otherwise sloppy, frustrating contest.
Turner finished as Tennessee’s leading scorer in that game, but 11 of his 20 points came from the foul line, and Turner’s eight turnovers continually cost UT chances on the offensive end.
With his development this season, Pons gives the Volunteers a threat in every facet of the game. He can score above the rim, in the post, and from three. Defensively, the Frenchman gives the Vols length on the perimeter and the otherwise undersized interior a legitimate shot-blocking presence.
Thus, despite improvements from both Turner and Bowden, it’s Pons who is Tennessee’s most valuable player. Double-digit scoring is the floor for Turner and Bowden if the Vols want to be successful, but double-digit scoring from Pons raises Tennessee’s ceiling tenfold.
Pons’ performance has created new expectations for himself and for Tennessee, and that’s a good thing. But for the Vols to excel, Pons will have to continue to be their X-factor moving forward.