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Column: It’s Time to Re-Evaluate Lamonte Turner’s Role

Photo by Caitlyn Jordan/RTI

Lamonte Turner wasn’t the only reason Tennessee lost an ugly 51-47 contest to No. 13 Memphis over the weekend, but he certainly didn’t help the Vols.

In what’s become a disturbing trend to start this season, Turner was, once again, more of a detriment than a positive on offense on Saturday against the Tigers. Saturday was his worst performance of the season so far, as the redshirt senior missed 10 of his 11 field goal attempts and failed to connect on all five of his three-pointers. Turner ultimately finished with five points thanks to making three of his four free throws.

In other games this season where Turner has struggled to shoot the ball, he’s been able to make up for it a lot of times by getting to the line (he leads the team in free throw attempts) or by dishing out assists.

On Saturday, he didn’t do much of either of those.

Turner finished with three assists and four free throw attempts along with five rebounds. His three assists were canceled out by his three turnovers, and he was a liability shooting the ball. Turner was even missing easier shots closer to the rim and failed to connect on all but one of his drives to the basket.

And the veteran guard did all that while never once taking a seat on the bench. Turner played all 40 minutes of Saturday’s game and remained the primary ball handler for most of the contest.

While Saturday was Turner’s worst day on the court of the season, it wasn’t like it was an aberration. Turner is supposed to be one of the Vols’ best players this season, and he’s definitely supposed to be one of their top scoring options.

Right now, he’s neither of those.

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Turner is shooting just 28.7 percent from the floor in nine games, and that includes connecting on only 23.9 percent of his threes. So far this season, Turner has attempted 46 three-pointers, but he’s only made 11 of them. In nine games this season, Turner has made more than two shots from distance just once, going 3-of-8 from three against Chattanooga.

Take out that game, and Turner is shooting 21 percent from three in his other eight games.

All of this would be mitigated somewhat if Turner was being a consistent, elite distributor of the basketball. In some games, he’s done that. He dished out 14 assists and had zero turnovers against Murray State, and he had a 12 assist/one turnover performance against Chattanooga.

But aside from those two games, Turner has battled problems with turnovers on several occasions.

Turner had six assists and six turnovers in UT’s season opener against UNC Asheville, eight assists and six turnovers against Washington, two assists and eight turnovers against Florida State, seven assists and five turnovers against VCU, and his three assist/three turnover game this past weekend against Memphis.

In 28 games last season, Turner had 42 turnovers. In nine games this season, he already has 34 turnovers.

Granted, last season Turner wasn’t counted on to be the main ball handler for the Vols. That was Jordan Bone. But down the stretch in the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, Turner was given more point guard duties, and he excelled at them. Turner actually had a better assist-to-turnover ratio in the Vols’ tournament games than Bone last season.

This year, Turner is averaging a career-high 7.1 assists per game, but his 3.8 turnovers a game are more than double his career average.

Despite this huge downturn in efficiency, Turner is playing the most minutes of anyone on Tennessee’s roster. The redshirt senior is averaging 34.4 minutes a game and has played 36 or more minutes in all but two of Tennessee’s nine games this season.

At most, Turner is getting to sit on the bench once a game most of the time. That won’t fly the whole season.

Last year, Turner got off to a brutal start to his season. He missed the first few games of the year because of offseason surgery on his shoulder, and when he returned, he was ineffective. In Turner’s first three games back from injury, he shot 26.5 percent from the field and only 20 percent from three while averaging 10 points and four assists per game.

Rick Barnes has already ceded this year that Turner’s shoulder — which he had surgery on again this offseason — is still bothering him. And that’s likely why Turner’s numbers right now mirror what he put up when he returned too quickly from injury last year.

Turner is averaging 12.8 points and 7.1 assists while shooting 28.7 percent overall and 23.9 percent from three. It’s clear from watching him this season that he just doesn’t have it right now, and this isn’t simply a cold spell.

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The solution last year was to rest Turner for a little over a month before bringing him back in time for SEC play. With contests against Cincinnati and Wisconsin still left on Tennessee’s schedule before the start of conference play this season, and without Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and Jordan Bone on the roster, completely sitting Turner doesn’t seem like a smart move.

But limiting his attempts on offense or changing his role might be.

Freshman Josiah-Jordan James clearly isn’t ready to be the primary ball handler for the Vols right now, but he’s capable enough to take the load off Turner for the time being. At least, until Santiago Vescovi gets here, but more on him in a moment.

James’ offense finally seems to be coming along after a slow start to the season. He’s scored in double figures in back-to-back games after failing to do so in the first seven games of the season. At times, he’s been proficient at ball handling, and he’s shown a knack for making some great passes. Several times, his teammates just haven’t been expecting those passes. Other times, he’s made freshmen mistakes.

All in all, though, James hasn’t been bad when he’s asked to act as a point guard. He should be given more of those opportunities moving forward.

Until four-star point guard Santiago Vescovi can arrive in January after enrolling early — assuming his SAT scores are good enough and everything goes according to plan — Tennessee may need to take a point guard by committee approach if Barnes doesn’t feel comfortable giving James more of the load.

Getting Turner off the ball and taking some responsibility off his shoulders of having to be both a scorer and a distributor might be what he needs. He also could use some more rest, because he’s playing far too many minutes a game right now. He’s getting one rest a game most of the time, which will catch up to him by the time February and March roll around.

Vescovi doesn’t need to be Tennessee’s savior at the point guard position; if he can even just provide 5-10 minutes of quality play at the position a game, that would be enough to give Turner more of a breather or get him off the ball more.

Until then, though, Tennessee might have to make due with just playing Turner less or giving him a different role. Because whatever the issue is, continuing as is won’t solve anything.

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