It was long ago that Yves Pons arrived in Knoxville from Paris, France and Tennessee fans were wondering what kind of player they were about to watch for the next four years. It didn’t take long for the the “Flying Frenchman” to have an impact on his team, led by Rick Barnes.
Pons had the luxury of learning from some of the best Tennessee players that have come through Knoxville in years. He wasn’t thrown into the fire and forced to play 20 minutes a night, thanks in part to Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Kyle Alexander. Meaning he could learn the way Barnes wanted his teams to play.
For Pons, stepping foot on the Knoxville campus was like stepping into a TV show.
“I had never seen anything like this before,” Pons said. “Everything was bigger, it was kind of like a TV show I had been watching. When I first stepped on the campus, it was amazing because it didn’t feel real, and seeing the arena with 22,000 seats? I had only played in an arena with like 5,000, so it was just amazing to see.”
His first year, Pons saw action in 24 games with his first block coming against Mercer in the 2017-2018 season. The freshman never looked back from that point in time and would end up becoming a defensive force for the Vols.
During his sophomore season, Pons appeared in 35 games, with 13 starts. He had his first career-high game in scoring against Eastern Kentucky, where he had 10 points and two blocks. As everyone knows, that 2018-2019 team was loaded with talent, so getting on the court was difficult at times for Pons, but it wasn’t because of talent. During a game against Samford, he grabbed nine rebounds, continuing to showcase his athletic ability.
The Vols won the SEC regular season championship that year, as Pons finished the season with 62 rebounds and 15 blocks. After a tough loss in the NCAA tournament, the Vols lost a talented group of players. Schofield, Williams, Jordan Bone and Alexander all moved onto the NBA. It was now up to Pons and John Fulkerson to lead the Vols into the future.
As the Vols were starting Pons’ junior season, things finally seemed to click for the young man. Let’s be honest, it can’t be the easiest task in the world to move to a different country, learn a different style of basketball, all while trying to handle being just a regular college student. As Pons discussed, it took him a while to get comfortable in Knoxville.
“It took almost a year and a half,” Pons said. “In the middle of my sophomore year, it happened gradually, and since I came late and missed most of summer camp, and had to adjust to the language. The basketball here is different from European basketball so it took me a while to adjust.”
If you look back on his junior season, there’s probably not a single Tennessee fan that will forget some of the posterizing moments that Pons brought to the floor. He finally had the opportunity to show exactly what his game could look like, as one of the leaders on the court. While Tennessee was struggling to find its identity on offense, it was Pons who was leading the charge on defense and breaking records in the process.
Even in the early portion of his junior season, he was already putting on a show. During a game against Jacksonville State, he had a program-record-tying six blocked shots while tallying 11 points in UT’s win. He recorded his first career double-double against Florida State, with 13 points and 10 rebounds, and this was within the first month of the season.
Even in defeat, Pons was drawing the eye of the national media, as he scored 24 points and had three blocks against No. 3 Kansas. He had arrived and folks were salivating while watching him soar through the air, block after block, all season long. Pons recorded a block in every single game played during Tennessee’s regular season, as he also had three or more blocks 15 times during the year. He was a player the Vols could count on in the paint, while Fulkerson continued to dominate on the scoring end.
As the season started to come to an end, the Vols were starting to get on a roll, but that was cut short at the SEC Tournament, where the Covid crisis shutdown Tennessee’s season. The hard work from Pons wouldn’t go unnoticed by the voters though. Pons was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and was just the third Vol to make the SEC All-Defensive Team. He finished the season with 73 blocks, tying C.J. Black (1997-98) for Tennessee’s single-season record.
Pons led the SEC and ranked 24th in the country with 2.4 blocks per game and also averaged a league-best 2.3 blocks during conference play. He was an absolute monster in the paint and around the basket, putting a stamp on a fantastic junior season, which also had his named mentioned for the NBA.
Pons will be the first one to tell you that he lets his work on the court do the talking. He is the type of player that’s not going to jaw with an opponent the whole night, that’s not his demeanor.
“I’m not a real expressive guy,” Pons said. “I observe and keep things to myself most of the time. I’m not just going to say it, I’m going to do it as well. I’m going to talk to the coaches and a few guys to figure it out and fix it.”
He’s also such a mature player and man for his age, which has definitely been noticed in how he presents himself. Pons has been married for over two years now, after meeting Laetitia in New York City. He’s discussed how they met during a profile for UT Sports.
“We met in a weird way,” Pons explained. “She was doing an exchange in New York. She was finishing her master’s degree in fashion marketing. At the same time, my friend Frank Ntilikina played for the New York Knicks, and my mentor, Raphael Gaston, went with me to some games. After a game, we followed Frank to see what his life looked like. He went out, so we went out after the game. A friend of his called some friends over, and Laetitia was in that group and we met like that.”
After talking over the course of a few months and Laetitia getting over the age gap, as Pons mentioned, she was 22 and he was a freshman in college, the two started a life together.
“When I got back to Knoxville, we just kept talking,” Pons said. “I asked her to come visit Knoxville so we could spend time together. That was when we really started to date. We went to Nashville, and it was really nice. We got married about two months later in the summer of my freshman year. It was pretty quick, but I was in love and I know what I want. I met her, and that was it for me.”
The married man is also a music lover, which Tennessee fans gravitated towards once they found out the defensive star could bang out some tunes on the saxophone. Just another trait that makes Pons who is he, a man of many different tastes.
just an absolute force of nature pic.twitter.com/ZHCtGmr7Ji
— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) May 23, 2020
Pons will play his last game at TBA on Sunday most likely, as he will be able to try his game at the next level, especially with how the NBA G-League works now, or even play overseas. Even though this season has had its ups and downs, Pons has grown so much over the last four years with his court presence and shot making.
“As a player I am much more confident and I know what I need to do on the court,” Pons said. “I can shoot the ball way better than I used to and I have put every part of my game on another level since my freshman year.”
He also knows that this season is far from over and this team can still put it together to make a run in March.
“We still have a long way to go,” Pons said. “We have to focus on the next game and treat the postseason like it’s a new season. We have to step it up and come together as a group and play our best basketball because it’s almost over. We have to give it everything we’ve got so we can achieve our goals.
“The main thing that we’re focusing on is we’re here to compete, here to win, here together as a team to find a chemistry. We’re trying to win, trying to execute, trying to get back to the team that we know we can be and we’re trying to play the way we had at the beginning of the season.”
No matter how this season ends for Tennessee, Pons has left his mark on Knoxville on and off the court. He’ll be remembered for his nastiness around the rim and blocked shots that sent basketballs into the stands, but also how he handled himself off the court. Tennessee has had many great representatives over the last number of years during the Rick Barnes era and Pons is yet another.
You will definitely see Pons highlights for years to come outside of Tennessee, but the ones he made in Knoxville will live on forever.