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Tennessee Banking On Nkamhoua’s Development

Photo Credit: Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee basketball tips off a new season Tuesday night at Thompson-Boling Arena. The 18th-ranked Vols are poised to compete for an SEC title this season and fans are eager to see talented newcomers Kennedy Chandler, Justin Powell and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield.

The Vols return four players that played over 24 minutes a game last season but perhaps the returning player with the most pressure is junior power forward Olivier Nkamhoua.

Last season, Tennessee’s post depth was one of its biggest issues. Behind John Fulkerson and Yves Pons, Rick Barnes couldn’t consistently rely on anyone in the Vols’ frontcourt. Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic and E.J. Anosike averaged less than nine minutes per game.

That’s why it was surprising that Barnes didn’t actively pursue a transfer big man this offseason. Granted, the seventh-year head coach added two talented prep big men in top 40 prospects Huntley-Hatfield and Jonas Aidoo.

Still, even blue chip big men are far from sure fire instant contributors as true freshmen — Aidoo doesn’t seem likely to earn major minutes this winter. The pressure is on Tennessee’s returning big men Plavsic and especially Nkamhoua to become dependable players night in and night out for the Vols.

“No, because I’ve got Jo(siah Jordan James), I have VJ (Victor Bailey Jr.), I got Uros (Plavisc), I got Santi(ago Vescovi), I have my team. I have my squad,” Nkamhoua said on if he feels pressure. “They take all that pressure off me. I don’t have to worry about playing for myself or proving myself. I just have to worry about playing for them and helping them out.”

More than Plavsic or Anosike last season, Nkamhoua showed flashes of being a player Tennessee could count on. The Hilinski, Finland native averaged 2.3 points and 1.3 rebounds in 7.2 minutes a game.

With Nkamhoua projected to start over Huntley-Hatfield at the season’s offset, Tennessee’s coaches are banking on a junior year jump so many of its big men have made under Barnes and his staff.

“On the offensive side of the ball he’s somebody that we hope will take the jump we’ve seen in the past from guys at his position,” associate head coach Mike Schwartz said. “John Fulkerson— his junior year. Yves Pons— his junior year. We’ve always had a great amount of confidence in Olivier as an offensive player. So he has taken those steps right now. We hope that’s where it is but where we really need him to do it is, we need him to be an elite defender and elite rebounder. … He does have the athleticism to do some of those things and bring some of that versatility. Help protect the paint, help protect the perimeter with his ability to switch. That’s the area that he needs to keep growing, but, again, you can not put a value on experience.”

For Nkamhoua, improvement and offseason growth has been less about his skills on the court growing, but more about his comfortability and confidence in what is a good play and a bad play.

“That’s been my focus and that’s where I’ve wanted to grow the most,” Nkamhoua said of his maturity and mentality. “I think I’ve done a good job of growing in that sense.”

“I think I’m moving on play-to-play better. I think I’m understanding my role a lot better and I think I’m meshing with my team the best I ever have. I think I’m learning to play with all the teammates I have and am learning to play to their strengths and they’ve learned to play to mine.”

The 6-foot-8 power forward making the mental jump is a massive piece for Tennessee’s chances to compete for a conference title. Nkamhoua hasn’t had the talent to be a starter for Tennessee the last two seasons but he has had the talent and athleticism to be a reliable bench piece.

The issue for the big man has always been confidence and understanding that allows him to play without thinking. Nkamhoua looks much more comfortable in practice this preseason, but the big man has always been a solid practice player. 

However, Nkamhoua’s ability to handle Barnes’ tough coaching and expectations appears to have improved.

“We speak about it every day,” Nkamhoua said. “You’re going to hear criticism from everybody else. Don’t take anything personally. You just have to grow and learn every day and focus on getting better every day.”

The one area on the court where Nkamhoua appears to have made a major improvement is his three-point shooting. The junior attempted just five triples in his first two years in Knoxville, but has added it to his repertoire this season.

Tennessee doesn’t need Nkamhoua to be a great three-point shooter, but if he can keep defenses honest by shooting slightly north of 30% then it would be a huge boost for the Vols’ offense.

“Being able to shoot, I don’t know about always, but it’s been part of my game since high school,” Nkamhoua said. “Shot selection, maturity, being able to do it in games on this next level is something I’ve had to work on. The biggest reason it isn’t, hasn’t been and won’t be a big point of my focus is it’s just an addition. I’m not our shooter. We’ve got Santi. I don’t need to be our three-point shooter. We have Santi who can do that really well, we got Jo who can do that really well, we have Justin now who can do that really well, V.J. It’s just me trying to be the best basketball player I can be. Me having all the tools I can have available to me and me trying to help my team the best I can. If that means I take one or two open threes and that’s helping us. Then I’m doing that.”

If Nkamhoua’s mental growth can lead to him playing over 15 minutes a game then Barnes’ decision not to bring in a transfer big man won’t be a bad one.

If he can make a major jump on the offensive end, then watch out. This Tennessee team will be by far the Vols’ best on the offensive end since 2018-19.

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