Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes was upset about a lot after the Vols’ 100-92 loss at No. 17 North Carolina on Thursday night. But Barnes was pleased with a number of aspects of the performance including Zakai Zeigler’s best game of the season and Josiah-Jordan James playing well in 38 minutes.
Most of all, the Vols’ ninth-year head coach was ecstatic with junior big man Jonas Aidoo and his continued development early this season.
“I think what’s come out of this for us is I think Jonas Aidoo finally believes what I’ve told him,” Barnes said postgame. “He’s got a chance to be as good as all those guys and be a factor once we can throw that ball inside like we did today, and just gonna open up more for those perimeter guys.”
“All those guys” is the three centers Tennessee has played in its last three games: Purdue’s Zach Edey, Kansas’ Hunter Dickinson and North Carolina’s Armando Bacot. That’s a group that includes the reigning National Player of the Year and, conservatively, three of the eight best big men in the country.
Aidoo wasn’t as affective as any of those three superstars but he held his own despite dealing with foul trouble in all three games. The Durham, North Carolina native totaled eight points and 11 rebounds against Kansas before totaling 13 points and four rebounds last night against the Tar Heels.
The junior big man has been a strong defensive players since last season. But it’s Aidoo’s offensive development that excites Barnes. Tennessee has struggled to find post scoring in recent years and sophomore power forward Tobe Awaka’s injury further limits the Vols inside.
“Jonas (Aidoo), we’re going to establish Jonas,” Barnes said. “And I truly think Jonas is gonna play his way this year to being one of the best post guys in the country.”
Barnes’ notion feels like a leap. Even with a scoring jump this season, Aidoo is just averaging 8.7 points per game and still has a limited back to the basket game but he’s scoring in double-figures in three of the Vols’ five game against big six opponents.
Analytics based site EvanMiya.com, ranks Aidoo as Tennessee’s fourth best and the nation’s 79th best player. But it’s Aidoo being +2.22 offensively and +2.96 defensively that’s interesting. Compare that to a season ago when Aidoo was +1.12 offensively and +3.61 defensively.
“Obviously everybody talks about what he does on the defensive end, but offensively, we’re starting to play through him more,” Tennessee senior Josiah-Jordan James said. “We tried to implement that. That has been an emphasis in practice, the practices leading up to this. We have ultimate confidence in Jonas. I do as a leader and we’re just gonna continue to see him grow and that’ll change the dynamic of our offense.”
Tennessee finding more consistent offensive production from Aidoo would be a major boost and would help him close the gap between himself and the nation’s top post players. But finding that at the basket is the key. Aidoo has a solid shooting touch but won’t become a consistent scorer without the interior presence.
The junior power forward showed that against North Carolina and is starting to show it more this season. It’s a development positive enough to excite Barnes on a night Tennessee dropped its third straight game.