Tennessee point guard Zakai Zeigler didn’t suit up for the Vols in either of their exhibition wins this preseason as he continues to rehab the knee injury that ended his sophomore season on the final day of February.
Zeigler was questionable for both games and is expected to return to the court in games before too long. But sidelined against Lenoir-Rhyne on Tuesday night, the junior point guard had a special spot next to his head coach on the Vols’ bench.
“We got ready to start and (he) came up to me and I said, ‘Here sit down, sit with me tonight,” Barnes said after Tennessee’s 90-48 victory. “Let’s talk, we’ll talk through the game and I said, ‘I’ll let you see what’s going on, what I’m thinking, what you’re thinking.’”
Barnes has a unique relationship with his point guards because of how much he puts on their shoulders. Zeigler watched Kennedy Chandler go through that as a freshman and learned it himself as he grew as a pass first point guard in his sophomore season.
Most of Barnes best teams have high-level point guard play. With a talented surrounding cast around Zeigler, the five-foot-nine point guard’s ability to execute Barnes’ wishes and distribute the ball will go a long way towards the 2023-24 Vols’ success.
Against Lenoir-Rhyne, Zeigler had an upfront look at what his head coach is looking for during games.
“Like start the game. One thing we wanted to do is really advance the ball,” Barnes said. “We didn’t, and we had chances to do it. And I said to him, ‘right now, do you think Jahmai knows he can advance the ball? He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I’m saying he thinks those guys aren’t open. Are they open?’ He says they’re open. So we called timeout and I said to Jahmai, ‘why didn’t you advance the ball? He said, ‘those guys weren’t open.’ I said, ‘Z were they open?’ He said, ‘they’re open.’”
That wasn’t the last time Barnes delegated teaching moments to his injured point guard. Throughout the Vols’ lopsided win, Tennessee’s ninth-year coach had Zeigler explain miscues to his teammates when they exited the game.
“Then as time was going on, I would take a guy out of the game and I would say, ‘go tell him why you just got taken out of the game.’ He cares a lot and he desperately wants to play,” Barnes said.
Barnes reiterated how badly Zeigler wants to be on the court while reemphasizing Tennessee’s desire not to rush Zeigler back. But the Vols’ point guard may not be out too much longer. He’s doing almost everything in practice including participating in full court scrimmages.
But on Tuesday night, he exchanged his No. 5 jersey for Santiago Vescovi’s No. 25 jersey and stayed put on the bench by his 69-year old head coach. The lessons Barnes wants Zeigler to learn could be integral in the 36th-year head coach getting back to the Final Four. And those lessons are all in the details