In his first two years at Tennessee, Yves Pons flashed potential and had moments where his freak athleticism showed through. Whether it was with a skyscraping dunk or a monster block, the potential was always there for Pons.
But because of the players in front of him and playing in a role not suited for him, Pons didn’t get a chance to do more than show off just a little of that potential.
Pons appeared in 24 games as a freshman but only averaged about five minutes a contest. Last season, Pons’ role grew a little, but his playing diminished as the season wore on. As a sophomore, he averaged 2.2 points and 1.8 rebounds in 11.7 minutes a game in 35 games, including 13 starts earlier in the season.
This year, however, Pons has finally broken out.
The 6-foot-6, 215-pound junior has been a consistent contributor for the Vols this season, starting all 15 games so far and averaging 11.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 49.6 percent overall and 33.3 percent from three.
In Pons’ first 59 games as a Vol, he scored a grand total of 94 points. In 15 games this season, he’s scored 167 points.
Before the 2019-20 college basketball season, Rob Dauster of NBC Sports compiled a list of players he expected to have breakout campaigns during the year. Now that the season has reached its midpoint, he looked at the players who have actually proven to be the most improved in the country, and Pons was one of the five players Dauster chose.
Dauster cites a quote from Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes to describe Pons, calling him one of the hardest workers Barnes has ever seen. And that hard work has paid off for the junior this season.
“Put another way, Tennessee’s culture is built on hard work and player development, and everyone you talk to in Knoxville will say the same thing: Yves Pons is the hardest worker,” Dauster writes. “And what he’s done is turn himself from being college basketball’s apex athletic freak into a very legitimate NBA prospect. He’s one of the best defenders that you’ll find in the collegiate ranks. He’s built like D.K. Metcalf, he can move like a ballet dancer and he has the vertical of someone that can win an NBA dunk contest. Players like that don’t come around too often. He can guard 1-5 at the college level. He’s top 15 nationally in block percentage. He’s a 6-foot-6 wing.
“Like I said, freak.”
Pons is currently on pace to set the single-season record for blocks at Tennessee, and his 2.6 blocks per game is on pace to break the school single-season record there, too. CJ Black holds both marks currently.
But as Dauster goes on to state, Pons has always had great defensive ability; where he’s grown the most from last season to this season is his offensive game.
Dauster points to Pons’ move to the four spot in the lineup rather than playing the two or three off the bench like he did last season as to why his offensive game has expanded this year. That move has made him more comfortable as a shooter and has allowed him to show off his skills much easier.
“He’s playing the four this year instead of being thrust into a spot at the two or the three,” Dauster explains. “That means instead of having to run off of pindowns in order to get shots, he’s able to catch-and-shoot while facing the basket.
“Put another way, shooting step-in threes from the top of the key as a trail-man is far easier than being a back-to-the-basket shooter that runs off screens like Rip Hamilton or J.J. Redick.”
Dauster adds that in the NBA, Pons would be asked to play a similar role he’s currently playing at Tennessee. He points out that if “Trevor Booker can play eight years in the NBA, Yves Pons has a shot.”
Booker, a 6-foot-8, 228-pound forward, played for Clemson in college and was a first-round pick by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the 2010 NBA Draft. His rights were later sold to the Washington Wizards, and that’s where he spent his first four years in the NBA. In 532 games with five different NBA teams, Booker averaged 6.9 points and 5.5 rebounds and shot 51.5 percent overall and 30.5 percent from three.
In college, Booker’s career numbers look a lot like what Pons is putting up this season. In 134 games at Clemson, Booker averaged 12.9 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks a game while shooting 55.9 percent overall and 32.3 percent from three.
Pons’ improvement has been a huge plus for the Vols this season, and he’s been a key contributor in a year where Tennessee has had to replace a ton of production. Without Pons, who knows where UT would be defensively or even offensively.
The French native joined the Vols as a four-star international prospect in the 2017 class and has one more year of eligibility after this season.