Tennessee fans have known one of them for over two years. Yet, almost no one in Vol nation knew the other’s name three months ago.
One of them is the third highest-rated signee in the modern era of Tennessee basketball history. The other didn’t rank as one of the top 225 players in his recruiting class.
One of them is from Memphis— while the city isn’t known for its love of UT, it’s still a part of the Volunteer State. The other is from the Bronx, New York, where Big East basketball is king.
Meet Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler. The highest and second lowest-rated players in Tennessee’s 2021 signing class are talented point guards who represent both the present and future of Tennessee basketball.
Get familiar with their names. You’re going to hear one — if not both — a lot this winter. But, the other is bound to be a staple of Tennessee basketball for years to come.
Chandler committed to Tennessee on August 14, 2020. The nation’s No. 1 point guard was about to begin his senior season of high school at Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, transferring from Briarcrest Christian in Memphis.
Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes and now George Mason head coach Kim English spearheaded the highly sought-after point guard’s recruitment. The Vols went into the heart of Memphis and beat out Penny Hardaway’s Tigers, Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina for Chandler.
From the moment he committed, Chandler changed the potential of the 2021-22 Tennessee basketball team. So far, he’s lived up to that hype.
“Kennedy Chandler is a really dynamic speed guard who makes everyone on the court better because of his ability to get where he wants to go with the ball,” associate head coach Mike Schartz said. “He’s very unselfish. He thinks pass, which is great, and he can really score the ball. But he still plays with that old-school point guard mentality. He likes to put pressure on the defense and create easy opportunities for others. Obviously, that’s something coach Barnes loves. Kennedy is very fast in transition and is going to allow us to do things we haven’t done as much since Jordan Bone was here—play off more ball screens, play in more space and play with more dribble because he’s that good with it.
“The word we keep using with him is ‘snake;’ he has the ability to snake through traffic and change direction, change speed, put the defense on his back. He just has great feel with the ball in his hands on how to keep pressure on the defense—even in tight quarters, and that’s a unique ability. He’s also a dynamic passer with both hands.”
The Memphis native showed why he’s unique in last Saturday’s exhibition win over Lenoir-Rhyne. Chandler scored 21 points on eight-of-10 shooting — four-of-five from three-point range — while grabbing five rebounds and dishing out six assists.
It was just an exhibition game against a division II school, but from the second Chandler stepped on the floor, he was undoubtedly the best player.
“His speed,” Zeigler said, was Chandler’s biggest strength. “He’s fast, shifty, and he’s a true point guard. He doesn’t care about scoring. He wants to pass the ball.”
Chandler can score from everywhere. He’s a high-level passer. The question for him is how effective he can consistently be on the defensive end. The only other question is just how good can he be?
The 6-foot speedster isn’t the future of Tennessee basketball. He is Tennessee basketball — or at least a massive piece of it — right now.
Then there’s Zeigler. The Bronx, New York native committed to Tennessee on August 27, 2021. A year and 13 days after the No. 1 point guard in the 2021 recruiting class committed to Tennessee, Zeigler decided to follow him— unafraid of the challenge.
“The impressive part is he made it onto campus knowing that,” Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark said of Zeigler coming to play with Chandler. “I think that the thing that most people discount is; people in this day and age, being a point guard, would never have came with Kennedy Chandler here. Especially that late in the game. The fact that he came in here with a mentality of ‘yeah, I get it he’s the number one point guard in the country but I’m not backing down from that.’ I think that’s special. I really think his heart, his soul, his toughness is special and rare and he’s come in and competed with Ken(nedy) every day. There’s been some days he’s gotten the best of Ken and some days that Ken’s gotten the best of him. They’ve been great for each other honestly. That’s the thing that I think we’ve been most excited about. The fact that they give each other their best shot every day.”
Zeigler wasn’t your typical No. 233 player in the country. The 5-foot-9, 167-pound point guard was initially a member of the 2022 recruiting class. So he wasn’t even on Tennessee’s radar when the Vols’ staff discovered him in July.
“Mike Schwartz, we actually went to go watch another kid, and Zakai was playing against him,” Clark said. “Mike Schwartz loved him, and coach (Barnes) had been talking about wanting to get a point guard in here that was going to be a longtime program guy, a heart and soul kid. Schwartz found Zakai and me having some background being in the EYBL and knowing some of the New York Lightning guys we kind of tag teamed it a little bit and started digging into it and I found a line that Zakai was originally a 2021 and that he was reclassifying into 2022 just based on not having the scholarship offers he wanted… We brought him on a visit, and it went great, and Zakai has proved to be exactly what we thought he could be. One of the toughest kids on the team. His will is incredible.”
Zeigler visited Tennessee in August, and his commitment followed shortly after. The scrappy point guard packed his bags and moved to Knoxville over two weeks into the fall semester.
“Once I saw how close everybody was and what it was like to be here for my visit, it was, ‘okay, this could be the place for me I want to be a part of this,’” Zeigler said.
The lowly rated point guard has impressed since arriving in Knoxville. Zeigler has been one of Tennessee’s best freshmen in practices open to the media and looks like a player that will inevitably make an impact in the orange-and-white.
“What he’s brought is unbelievable presence of grittiness, toughness, he’s a winner,” Schwartz said. “He’s always been a winner in high school. He’s been a winner with his AAU team and he brings that presence on the floor. Xs and Os wise, basketball wise, what he does is affect defensive tempo immediately, and offensive tempo. Whether it’s pushing the basketball in transition. Whether it’s being able to pressure the basketball and be someone that really disrupts the other team’s offense, he does that in practice on a daily basis. He’s a really good shooter. He can shoot the basketball. There’s so many areas that he’d be the first to tell you he wants to get better at but he has a high basketball IQ. He’s picked up the system quickly on both sides of the ball and the guys love him because he’s a tough, tough kid. He’s a winner. He competes and we just feel very lucky and fortunate to have him.”
The question on Zeigler is obvious. How much impact can a 5-foot-9 point guard who was a junior in high school five months ago have on this Tennessee team?
“He’s done everything he’s needed to to put himself in a position to gain coach’s trust,” Schwartz said.
However, Schwartz was quick to point out that there’s no telling what Zeigler’s role on this team could be. It’s a long season, and Zeigler could run into a freshman wall at some point and not end up as a consistent rotation piece.
While his role as a freshman is up for debate, Zeigler will undoubtedly be a multi-year contributor at Tennessee. Vols’ coaches have raved about him this fall, and he provides exactly what Barnes wanted in a multi-year point guard that can grow in Tennessee’s system.
Zeigler also undoubtedly brings a level of competition and grit to Tennessee. That will pay dividends whether he plays 15 or three minutes a game this season.
“That’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve met in my life,” power forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “Zakai is a great kid. He’s a great competitor, and he’s a great basketball player. I’m proud of him for making the choice for himself. I think it helps Kennedy a lot too, and I think it helps everybody— the more competitive people we have in the gym the more competitive atmosphere we have in practice and the more competitive we’ll be in games.”
That’s where Zeigler’s commitment may be the best thing that could have happened to Kennedy Chandler.
The roommates push each other in everything they do. It shows up on the court. If you expect a three-star recruit to back down and concede reps or minutes to a five-star, don’t tell Zeigler that.
The small guard is scrappy and hasn’t backed down from a challenge yet. Chandler is reaping the benefits of that, even if it makes practices harder for him.
“He’s a small guard,” Chandler said of Zeigler. “He’s a gnat on defense. He makes me better every day in practice with how fast he is, and I’ve never had someone as fast as me guarding me. He’s as fast as me. He gets me better every day. I don’t know if I’ll play anyone as fast as him or have someone as fast as him guarding me this year. I know he gets me better every day in practice.”
“It’s been great,” Zeigler said. “I feel like we push each other every day. We get the best of each other. Maybe it’s not his best day, or maybe it’s not my best day but no matter what, we push each other. We’re roommates and at the end of the day, we’re brothers. We leave it all on the court. We’re not friends on the court but we’re friends off it.”
Tennessee signed two point guards in its 2021 recruiting class. Their paths to Knoxville couldn’t have been any different. One was full of fanfare, and the other was an afterthought.
However, Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler are now roommates about to enter a level of basketball that neither have played in. They’re going through Rick Barnes’ school for point guards.
And at least one of the two may be running Barnes’ offense for years to come.