Wearing gold cross earrings, Jahmai Mashack’s eyes light up as he talks about playing defense and feeding off the energy from Thompson-Boling Arena after an elite defensive possession.
Tennessee’s sophomore guard talks about how he’s prided himself on being a player that “has heart and grit” since the first time he picked up a basketball. He describes his desire to improve his shot while never talking too long about offense before reinforcing the fact that he is first and foremost a “defensive stopper.”
It takes a short time to realize Mashack fits Tennessee basketball like a glove. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard is the type of player that Vols’ coach Rick Barnes loves and the type of person that thrives in the program Barnes runs.
From the first time former associate head coach Mike Schwartz watched Mashack play, Tennessee knew it wanted the Fontana, California native.
“I can remember Mike (Schwartz) telling me, Coach, he’s our kind of kid and we absolutely want him in this program,” Barnes said. “Everything that we’re about, we want him here. He has not disappointed us any way like that.”
The grandson of a pastor, it was no surprise that Mashack quickly took to Tennessee. Rick Barnes never shies away from his faith in Jesus and that only attracted Jahmai and his family to Tennessee.
“I think Tennessee really stood out to me because of one, they really announced that they were close with the Lord and that was a big thing for me,” Mashack said. “Coach Barnes has been outspoken with his Christianity and his religion. I think that was one of the biggest things for me with joining this program.”
Barnes raves about the support Mashack’s family provides him. Always grounded and realistic, Barnes calls Jahmai’s family “beautiful people that you always look forward to being around.”
The veteran college coach won over Mashack’s entire family. Even Mashack’s brother Kwesi — who played football at Arizona — thought Jahmai should play for Barnes at Tennessee instead of following his path to Tucson.
Mashack and Barnes’ shared faith didn’t stop with his recruitment. The shooting guard brought that faith to Knoxville and views being a Tennessee basketball player as an opportunity to share it.
“I want to use this platform I have with basketball to reach other people and bring others to Christ,” Mashack said. “That’s probably the biggest thing for me, just trying to bring others to Christ and using this as something just to reach out to people.”
Mashack using his platform includes him connecting with younger fans, never turning down autograph requests and showing his true self to others. Mashack’s openness about his faith — which is often difficult for young athletes — has impressed his head coach.
“I’m encouraged by him because he’s not afraid to talk about it,” Barnes said.
Being a Christian isn’t a necessity in the Tennessee basketball program but it makes you a better fit. Mashack’s religion isn’t the only thing that makes him a great fit in Barnes’ program.
Mashack was a four-star, top 75 recruit coming out of high school. However, the shooting guard was still extremely raw on the offensive end.
Luckily for Mashack, playing stout defense is the fastest way to earn playing time at Tennessee.
“Just coming in as a freshman, that was my main focus,” Mashack said. “I never wanted to lose that defensive fire and that energy that I had in high school and I wanted to bring here. That’s another reason I felt like it was a perfect fit because he (Barnes) did expect defense a lot.”
Mashack’s mindset and defensive ability earned him a role — albeit a small one — on the Vols’ 27-7 SEC Tournament Championship team a season ago. Playing in 27 of Tennessee’s 34 games, Mashack averaged 4.6 minutes a game while bringing defensive energy and zero offensive production (0.7 points per game).
The 6-foot-4, 201 pound guard’s defensive prowess was notable as a freshman but his increased role this season (19 minutes per game) has elucidated his abilities.
Defense doesn’t look easy for Mashack because he’s always playing at max effort. To the untrained eye, Mashack looks like the Tasmanian Devil wildly and uncontrollably scrambling in half court defense.
In reality, it’s only Mashack’s effort that’s uncontrollable. The sophomore flies about his defensive rotations ready to attack ball handlers when they’re in a vulnerable position.
“I just love the feeling of being able to crack down on defense and stop somebody else from scoring,” Mashack said.
Mashack wants to guard the opponent’s best player every game. When afforded the opportunity, he does it at an elite level. Mashack held Ole Miss star Matthew Murrell to two points on one-of-11 shooting from the field in Tennessee’s SEC opener in Oxford.
The sophomore guard can steal the ball just as easily as he can take a star opponent out of the game. Mashack ranks third on the Vols with 1.8 steals per game and is ninth nationally in steal percentage, taking the ball from opponents on 5.5% of defensive possessions.
“His identity has been created as a defensive catalyst,” assistant coach Rod Clark said. “He has done a great job of embracing that and riding it out and being a spearhead guy of essentially one of the best defenses in the country.”
Mashack’s physicality has boded well for Tennessee this season. With Josiah-Jordan James sidelined for much of the season, Mashack has earned minutes as a small-ball four-man and has proven capable of holding his own against power forwards.
Thriving in multiple roles, Mashack is not only embracing but loving playing on Tennessee’s elite defensive unit. That defense is the nation’s best and the leading force in the eighth-ranked Vols’ 12-2 (2-0 SEC) start to the season.
“That energy of feeling a defensive stop or the crowd getting into it when you get a steal or block or a dead ball possession,” Mashack said. “It’s a lot of aspects in defense that I love as far as from a competitive standpoint.”
Barnes compares Mashack’s offensive game to a golfer. Always expending 100% effort on the defensive end, Mashack is playing with a driver and often struggles to slow down on the offensive end.
“He’s going to have to understand that midrange area where he’s going to have to learn how to use a wedge,” Barnes said. “Learn how to use different irons. Then on free throws, he’s going to have to learn how to use the putter.”
As great as Mashack has been defensively this season, his offensive growth is why his minutes have dramatically increased.
During the 2021-22 season, Mashack was not an offensive threat. Freshman Jahmai Mashack played out of control on the offensive end and couldn’t hit open jumpers— often not attempting them— when opponents dared him to shoot.
“He was a flight risk at times last year. He really was,” Clark said. “It was scary when he had the ball in his hands.”
Mashack was tentative to work on his shot during his freshman season but fully bought into Barnes’ plan to alter his technique in the offseason.
Barnes says Mashack “was a slinger instead of a shooter” as a freshman. Having no consistent shooting stroke, Mashack moved while shooting and struggled with his hand positioning. Dedicating an offseason to his shot, the defensive first guard found the consistency and rhythm he was looking for.
“It was just repetition,” Mashack said. “Beforehand, my jump shot was a little bit inconsistent. I wouldn’t shoot the same the whole time. Now, I think I really have a really good groove on what my jumper is and how it feels.”
Mashack didn’t get in a groove with his shot over night. It took the guard spending “countless hours in the gym” to gain comfortability with it.
“I give him great credit because you can’t fix a player’s shot unless he’s willing to fix it,” Barnes said.
Even with his offensive growth, Mashack is not a go-to offensive option on Tennessee’s roster. Mashack says he’s “still getting comfortable” with trusting his shot in games while understanding he’s not one of the Vols’ main offensive threats.
“Probably one of the hardest things for me is trying to find that balance,” Mashack said. “Like I said before, we have so many offensive threats and I would consider myself an offensive threat too but I just have to know my role on the team and that’s to first and foremost play defense. … Whenever I can come in offensively, that’s when I’ll do that.
Mashack is averaging a modest 5.3 points per game but that’s enough to make defenses respect him. Defenses respecting Mashack is all Barnes needs to put the sophomore on the court and let him create chaos on the defensive end.
The way Mashack embraced changing his shot and improved his offensive game in his first offseason shows his offensive potential. Barnes and his Tennessee staff are known for player development and Mashack’s work ethic mirrors the players that have greatly improved under Barnes’ tutelage.
Combine Mashack’s work ethic with his steadfast faith and love of defense and you have a basketball player destined to play for Rick Barnes at Tennessee. In his sophomore season, Mashack’s fit at Tennessee is clear as he thrives in an increased role.
“He is someone we depend upon every game to come in, defend, get big stops, guard the other team’s best player, make open shots,” Clark said. “Bring that toughness and that edge that we need as a team.”
What a great article. It helps me understand the player as an individual and the program the supports him much better. It was well written and provides perspective on UT sport that is often overlooked. Well done Ryan!