Tennessee basketball held its final preseason practice open to the media Thursday ahead of Monday’s season opener against Tennessee Tech.
The Vols got up-and-down the court, mostly pairing its top seven players against the rest of the roster while also working on press and zone defense.
Let’s start with Josiah-Jordan James who did more work during the five-on-five portions of practice than I have seen in the preseason.
James was the active leader he’s turned into and drilled a handful of jump shots including one as the shot clock expired.
One observation I’ve had from watching this team throughout the preseason is that it’s going to take — and make — a lot of threes this season. The Vols pivoted to shooting more threes a season ago. The expectation was that they’d still shoot a lot this year but after watching them half a dozen times I think they’ll shoot even more than they did a season ago.
I’ve wrote this a handful of times this preseason but I’m expecting a big second year jump from Zakai Zeigler. That might not always show up in the scoring column but he’s just more polished and a better passer than he was last season.
Speaking of passing ability, Tyreke Key continues to impress me on that front. Rick Barnes says Key would start at point guard if they decided to bring Zeigler off the bench and Key looks very comfortable playing that spot given he didn’t any at Indiana State.
No one speeds up the grad transfer guard and he passes the ball very well. Key and Uros Plavsic have seemingly built a strong connection and are frequently on the same page offensively.
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Julian Phillips didn’t shoot the ball from the perimeter as well as I’ve seen him do this preseason but he showed some ability to penetrate off the dribble and really impressed with his ability to finish with both hands at the basket.
Phillips also had the play of the afternoon with an extremely impressive alley-oop. Olivier Nkamhoua caught a pass in the lane and threw the oop to Phillips cutting from the left corner. The five-star freshman caught the ball with his right arm fully extended behind him and threw down the dunk over Tobe Awaka who was playing help defense on Nkamhoua.
Awaka and freshman B.J. Edwards are going to be the two most interesting playing time questions, in my opinion. Edwards had a nice day — especially shooting from the perimeter — but Tennessee just has a ton of backcourt depth that finding the court will be a challenge.
The learning curve for Awaka continues to be steep but he’s further ahead than he was a few weeks ago and seems to be making real improvements. Still, the freshman is behind Plavsic, Nkamhoua and Jonas Aidoo. With Tennessee’s versatility — see Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips — I have a hard time seeing them playing more than three big men unless there’s injuries or foul trouble.
Jahmai Mashack had as strong as a practice as I’ve seen from him. Barnes talked about Mashack being the team’s most improved player following the Gonzaga scrimmage and he looked like Thursday.
Mashack looks extremely comfortable shooting in the midrange and even made a half dozen threes. The sophomore shooting guard caught fire near the end of practice.
One final play that caught my eye. Nkamhoua caught a transition pass slightly under the basket with Aidoo on his back. Nkamhoua, while running, caught the pass and immediately jumped and fired to an open Santiago Vescovi in the corner for a triple.
It was a beautiful transition offense sequence and a play Nkamhoua wouldn’t have made much of his career.