Tennessee basketball received great news on Monday afternoon when Yves Pons announced that he was withdrawing his name from the 2020 NBA Draft and returning to Rocky Top for his senior season.
COVID-19 aided Tennessee in Pons’ decision to return for one more year. Pons was considered a fringe draft pick by most that cover the NBA Draft. The 6-foot-6 forward could have earned the trust of an NBA team had there been an NBA Combine. Or had he been able to workout and interview with different teams. But he wasn’t afforded that luxury due to COVID.
Pons’ decision wasn’t as informed as he would have liked it to be and maybe that was the difference in him returning to school and him turning pro. Regardless, one of Tennessee’s key pieces is officially in the mix for the upcoming 2020-21 season as the Vols look to make a special run. Here are a couple of takeaways from Pons’ decision to return to school.
Improving his stock
Even though Pons may have wanted to turn pro instead of return to school, he can still improve his stock greatly. His offense is still a work in progress, but if he can continue to make strides on that end of the floor, he’s a near lock to get drafted in 2021.
He did show significant improvement on the offensive end as a junior, enjoying a breakout season. Pons went from averaging 2.2 points as a sophomore to 10.8 points this past season. He also shot 35 percent from three and 49 percent from the floor as a junior after shooting 28 percent from three as a sophomore. His 30 made 3-pointers as a junior were more than he made as a freshman and sophomore combined (9). It was also more than he attempted (28).
Pons demonstrates solid form on his shots and has proven that he can knock down the open ones. But if he can prove to be more than just a spot-up shooter, and can show he can make shots off the dribble, his stock will quickly rise.
NBA teams would also like to see Pons become more of a consistent rebounder. Pons had 10 or more rebounds just three times in 31 games last season. He had 11 games with seven or more rebounds, but also had 10 games with three or fewer. On the offensive glass, he had five games in which he finished with no offensive boards.
Pons is far too athletic to be that inconsistent on the glass. He can’t have games where he has zero offensive rebounds or three total rebounds. Pons is a guy that should be around eight rebounds per game. He should be a dominant rebounder on both ends of the floor, and have a huge impact on the game as an offensive rebounder.
Elite defensive potential
We all know how great of a defensive player Pons is. He didn’t luck into becoming the first Vol in program history to win SEC Defensive Player of the Year, or luck into being named to the All-SEC Defensive Team last year. Pons’ freakish athleticism and defensive ability is why he had the option of turning pro. But having Pons back in the fold from Tennessee’s perspective means that Rick Barnes’ defense can get back to what it was when the Vols won the SEC in 2017-18.
Pons is capable of guarding up to four positions on the floor. This will present multiple defensive options for Barnes. He can play big, small, man or zone at any time he would like. More importantly, the on-ball defense will be much-improved after struggling last season when you factor in Pons, Victor Bailey, Jaden Springer, Keon Johnson and Josiah-Jordan James.
The improved on-ball defense will allow Tennessee to do what it did in 2017-18 on the defensive end: smother opponents. UT ranked sixth nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com that year, with a 97.2 rating. The Vols led the SEC, too, more than a point ahead of second-place South Carolina.
Eliminates pressure of others stepping up
Without Pons on the roster, Sacred Heart grad transfer E.J. Anosike playing well would have been crucial to Tennessee’s success. Anosike would have had to produce from game one, but now he can just be a nice piece of the puzzle who can help you off the bench as a rebounder.
It also takes pressure off of sophomore Olivier Nkamhoua and redshirt sophomore Uros Plavsic. Without Pons, one of those two, or both, would have had to play significant minutes as either a starter in an effort to replace Pons, or as a backup to Anosike. Now, those two don’t feel the pressure of contributing while continuing to develop their games.
The positive affect of Pons coming back even trickles down to sophomore Drew Pember. The Knoxville native is better suited to play out on the wing at 6-foot-10, as he’s a great shooter, but now he can continue to develop his game without feeling the pressure to contribute now.
Pons’ return makes life easier on everybody.
The team to beat
Tennessee would have been a really good basketball team this season even had Pons decided to remain in the NBA Draft. The Vols would have won 20 games, competed for an SEC title and made the NCAA Tournament. But with Pons in the mix, the Vols become the favorite to win the SEC, and a deep run in March becomes the expectation.
The SEC is going to be strong this season. Kentucky brought in an incredible recruiting class, while LSU, Florida and South Carolina return talented pieces as well. Auburn has a lot of production to replace, but the Tigers still have talent to win now. Throw in significantly improved rosters from Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and Texas A&M, and the conference all of a sudden has the makings of one of the better leagues in the entire country.
No team in the SEC enters the season with the mix of talent, experience, leadership and coaching that Tennessee will possess, however.