On Saturday, redshirt senior point guard Lamonte Turner revealed that he would be having season-ending surgery on his shoulder that has been ailing him for well over a year. Turner had struggled to shoot the ball to start this season, and the pain was just too much to continue on with.
Unfortunately for Turner, the surgery will end his season and his Tennessee career. And now it forces the Vols to reinvent themselves mid-season.
Last week, Tennessee head basketball coach Rick Barnes said that mid-year enrollee and four-star point guard Santiago Vescovi likely wouldn’t play this season. Tennessee officially welcomed in Vescovi earlier this week, but Barnes said at the time it was “highly unlikely” the point guard from Uruguay would play any this season.
“He got everything in place academically,” Barnes said after UT’s practice last Friday. “We’re excited about him being here. But whether or not he plays this year, I would say it’s highly unlikely. But he will be here on the 28th.
“It’s hard enough to learn (the system) when you’ve been around it a while. He’s young. But he’s coming in, and we’re excited. Our team is excited, and we’re looking forward to him getting here.”
But with Turner now no longer on the court, does that change how things will play out with Vescovi, the No. 74 overall prospect and No. 13 point guard in the 2020 cycle per 247Sports?
According to Barnes, the plan all along has been for Vescovi to control whether or not he plays.
“It’s funny, the last time we talked about him and him coming here, I made the comment that it was highly unlikely,” Barnes said to reporters on Thursday afternoon. “Just right after that, we’ve always said it was his option to do that. We got the feel maybe he would, maybe he wont. It’s up to him. We said that even when we were recruiting him, ‘you have a chance when you come in and get through everything.’
“It’s his call. It still will be his call. I think he’s excited. The last time we talked, he took it as if he didn’t have that option to play. We said, ‘No no no, we said from day one it’s your option and your call.’ If he comes in and feels like he can do it, I think he will do it.”
Vescovi comes to UT via the NBA Global Academy. The 6-foot-2 point guard started out at the NBA Academy Latin America in Mexico City when it opened in the winter of 2018. He transferred to the NBA Global Academy in Australia this past July. There, Vescovi led the NBA Global Academy to a championship at the 2019 NBA Academy Games. He led his team in scoring in the semifinal and the title game. Vescovi also starred in the NBA G League International Challenge in Uruguay and the Basketball Without Borders Global Camp.
At the Basketball Without Borders camp, Vescovi competed against former NBA players such as Greg Monroe, Paul Zipser, and Josh Huestis. Vescovi earned all-star honors at the event and was named MVP of the 2019 Skill Factory Tournament of Champions in Atlanta after totaling 29 points, seven assists, and six rebounds in the championship game.
Vescovi officially joins the team this weekend, but he must wait for standard NCAA and SEC clearance protocols before becoming eligible to compete in games
Once he’s eligible, time will tell if Vescovi will play. Until then, who will handle Tennessee’s ball handling duties?
Five-star freshman Josiah-Jordan James is the likely new point guard for the team, and Barnes thinks the young guard is ready for the role.
“I think he is ready. I think he can handle that,” Barnes said of James. “He and Davonte Gaines, and depending on when Santiago gets here, but Josiah is ready. He has gotten better every game. He has learned and continued to learn how to read the system he’s in.
“There’s no doubt he can handle that.”
In Tennessee’s first 11 games this season, James is just fifth on the team in scoring at 7.4 points a game, but he’s found ways to make impacts in other areas. He actually leads the team in rebounding at 6.3 boards a game, and he’s second only to Turner in assists at 2.5 per game.
James has started every game this season, and he’s already averaging 30.2 minutes a contest. With Turner out, those minutes will only increase.
Luckily for Tennessee, James’ play has finally started to improve as he’s knocked the rust off from battling offseason injuries and not practicing with the team for weeks. James has eclipsed double digit scoring in three of his last four games after not scoring more than nine points in his first seven games of the season, and he’s averaging 10.5 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in his last four games. James also totaled a career-high six assists in Tennessee’s win against Jacksonville State, Lamonte Turner’s last as a Vol.
It remains to be seen how much Santiago Vescovi will play this season, if at all. But Barnes is at least open to the idea, and it sounds like it’s firmly in Vescovi’s hands whether or not he sees the court.