Column: Santiago Vescovi Will Be a Star

(Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

When Tennessee first started targeting Santiago Vescovi as a recruit, I was pretty much sold from Day 1 after watching his film. Overseas, Vescovi just had that “it” factor to his game. He made flashy plays, could shoot the ball well, and had a variety of offensive weapons in his arsenal already.

The big question was whether or not those skills would translate well into the college game and how long it would take him to adjust.

When the Vols first got Vescovi’s commitment, I was intrigued by what he would bring to this team. He was working on being a mid-year enrollee, and all signs pointed to him being able to do that. I thought, as did most, that he would be a valuable backup to starting point guard Lamonte Turner who could provide some quality minutes off the bench and spell Turner or even allow the senior to play more off the ball.

But life had a different plan for how Tennessee’s 2019-20 season would play out.

Just 11 games into the Vols’ season, Turner announced that he would be having season-ending surgery on his shoulder, the same shoulder that had been bothering him for years at UT. Turner had a rare condition called thoracic outlet syndrome, the same type of injury Markelle Fultz of the Orlando Magic had surgery for as well.

Tennessee played one game without Turner and without a true point guard on the roster, and it was an ugly one. The Vols had one of their worst overall performances of the season, losing 68-48 to Wisconsin in Knoxville.

For the Vols’ next game, their SEC opener against LSU, Vescovi would make his debut as a Vol. He enrolled mid-year and began practicing with the team once he was cleared.

But he wasn’t eased into playing time; Vescovi earned his first career start in his first career game at Tennessee.

And he impressed.

Vescovi played 32 minutes in his debut and made six of his nine three-pointers for 18 total points, six rebounds, and four assists. The freshman’s nine turnovers were concerning, and his defense left a lot to be desired. But considering he practiced with the team for one week before taking over at point guard, his debut was nothing short of remarkable.

Rick Barnes and UT’s coaches were highly impressed with Vescovi’s knowledge of Tennessee’s offense and their schemes once he arrived on campus. The Uruguayan guard was given film to watch and study of the Vols, and he did just that and more, putting in an impressive amount of work before getting to Knoxville.

That work ethic combined with how he practiced and his skill level earned him an immediate start. And he hasn’t looked back.

Vescovi had to adjust to the college style of basketball, and turnovers were a big problem for him in his first few weeks as a Vol. In Vescovi’s  first five games at UT, he averaged 11.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 24.8 minutes. But he was also averaging 5.6 turnovers a game, and he was getting a little more timid on offense with his shot selection.

But the freshman began to settle in, and he’s been one of the Vols’ best players as of late.

Over his last seven games, Vescovi is only averaging two turnovers a game to go along with 12.0 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 4.7 assists in 32.7 minutes a game. He’s playing more minutes and getting more active touches on the ball, but his turnovers have been slashed by over half.

Not only that, but Vescovi has been Tennessee’s most consistent three-point shooter as well. He’s made at least one three in every game he’s played as a Vol, and his 27 made threes are already the second-most on the team despite him not being on the roster for the first 12 games of the season.

But Vescovi doesn’t just impress on the stat sheet; what he does in the game is just fun to watch, and it shows a level of skill Tennessee hasn’t seen in quite some time.

Vescovi isn’t afraid to shoot the ball from anywhere, and he’s shown multiple times that he has Chris Lofton range, draining threes a good six or seven feet behind the three-point line.

His passing? That’s also a thing of beauty at times, as he’s made several no-look passes to his teammates to set them up perfectly for a score.

All those highlights you just watched? They’re just from one game. Vescovi has done those exact same things in several other games, and he’s only played in 12 games as a collegiate athlete.

The amount of growth Vescovi has shown in such a short time and the amount of skill he possesses bodes extremely well for his future. He’s been on campus for barely over two months, and he’s already averaging 11.6 points, 3.9 assists, and 3.8 rebounds while making 37.8 percent of his threes and 82.4 percent of his free throws.

Vescovi would be playing exceptionally well for a regular four-star freshman point guard in the SEC. But when you consider the fact that he joined the team mid-season and was thrown into the fire immediately, his progress and his play so far is almost unbelievable.

The freshman didn’t have the opportunity to learn behind a veteran point guard. He didn’t have the opportunity to learn lessons in controlled minutes early in the season against weaker competition. Every game he’s played as a Vol has been against an SEC opponent or another high-major program (like Kansas).

And he’s doing all this with a Tennessee team that isn’t as talented as the last two teams have been. Vescovi on next year’s squad with two more five-stars and another year of experience for players like Yves Pons, John Fulklerson, and Josiah-Jordan James should be something to behold.

Vescovi is already sixth among SEC freshman in points per game and ranks behind only Georgia’s Sahvir Wheeler for most assists per game among SEC freshmen.

As long as he can stay healthy, Vescovi has true star potential. He’s only been on campus for two months, but he’s deserving of a Freshman All-SEC bid, and he’s been one of the most impressive players to watch this season.



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