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Dalton Knecht And Josiah-Jordan James’ Games Complementing Each Other, Tennessee Basketball

Dalton Knecht
Photo by Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics.

Dalton Knecht and Josiah-Jordan James are both super seniors. They’re both 6-foot-6 and weigh within 20 pounds of each other.

But the duo have followed radically different paths to their fifth and final collegiate season. James is a former five-star recruit while Knecht came to Knoxville after stops at junior college and Northern Colorado.

Their games are almost as different as the road they’ve taken to get here. But that’s what makes the two perfect complements for each other and perfect wings for Tennessee basketball.

More From RTI: How An April One-on-One Game Was The First Sign Of Dalton Knecht’s Brilliance

Knecht Takes The Offensive Burden Off James

James is the victim of expectations. A five-star recruit and Tennessee’s first McDonald’s All-American under Rick Barnes, the weight of Vol basketball was placed on James’ shoulders when he arrived in Knoxville a season after Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield and Jordan Bone all moved on to professional basketball.

When there’s a five-star ranking by your name, the expectation is for you to be a top-notch scorer. And James isn’t one. That’s not what makes him a good basketball player.

Outside of a six-week stretch from Kennedy Chandler to close the 2022 season, Tennessee hasn’t had a high-end scorer during James’ tenure. That’s often forced James to shoulder a load that he wasn’t built to shoulder.

Then Dalton Knecht entered the picture. Another wing player, Knecht is a scoring sensation. Shooting guard Santiago Vescovi calls him “one of the greatest players, offensively, that we’ve seen so far.”

Knecht is averaging 25 points per game in SEC play and has scored 35-plus points four times this season. He can take over a game in an instant, totaling 20-plus points in six different halves this season.

James has embraced it all.

“He’s been a really great teammate,” Knecht told RTI about James. “Even if I miss him when he’s wide open in the corner and I shoot a contested shot he’s always like ‘good shot. Who cares? Keep letting it fly. You’re a scorer, that’s why we brought you here.’”

Knecht’s scoring ability has lifted a weight off James and opened things up for him on the offensive end. 

James has always been capable of big offensive performances and he’s had some of the best offensive games of his career this season. The super senior scored 20 points at North Carolina, 22 points in Knecht’s worst game of the season against North Carolina State and a career-best 27 points in Tennessee’s win at Kentucky.

“I think that Dalton has been able to come in and alleviate a lot of that pressure from Jo as well as it comes down to a matchup thing too,” Tennessee assistant coach Rod Clark told RTI. “He (James) gets some good matchups on certain nights.”

James has still been inconsistent offensively this season including a long shooting drought to open SEC play. But Knecht is the difference for Tennessee’s offense. Instead of the Vols being dependent on James’ shooting, anything he gives them on that end of the court is gravy. 

It allows James to hone in on the things that make him a good basketball player. Knecht benefits from those traits the same way James benefits from the transfer’s elite scoring.

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

James Fix-It Ability Helps Knecht On Defensive End

Clark had a clear message to Knecht after the graduate transfer entered the portal last offseason.

“I said, ‘you have to have swagger and you have to have toughness and I’m just telling you right now, you’re from (Northern) Colorado so they’re (the NBA) going to assume you haven’t played against the toughest dudes and you were on one of the worst defensive teams in the country last year. So they’re going to assume that you don’t guard and all you want to do is care about points. You can come here and you can change that narrative,’” Clark said.

If you play for Rick Barnes, he’s going to make you play defense. Defense has been a work in progress for Knecht and Barnes hasn’t been easy on him. Barnes promised Knecht as much before he even committed.

“I told him (Barnes) that I feel like I play my best basketball when I get pushed every day and when I have a coach on me I’ll be all that better,” Knecht said. “He said, ‘you don’t have to worry about that.’”

It’s been a work in progress for Knecht defensively but while he’s struggled and improved, Josiah-Jordan James has been there to pick up the slack. 

There are few things Barnes loves more than a ‘fix-it’ play on the defensive end of the court. The former five-star is elite at making them.

“If I mess up the defensive coverage or someone messes up the defensive coverage, he makes it super easy,” Knecht said of James. “He’ll help us out not only when the play is happening but after the play is happening too. He’s a big fix-it guy. We know if one of us gets blown by, he’s going to be the first one to help us out.”

“If Dalton gets beat off the dribble, he’s (James) in gaps and is able to get back out to his (man) with his wing span,” Clark said.

According to EvanMiya’s Defensive Bayesian Performance Rating, James is the 14th best defender in the country. He has 11 games with multiple steals and three games with multiple blocks this season.

James blocked four shots against Auburn earlier this week. He “fixed” a lapse in transition defense with a chase down block of Jaylin Williams before blocking Aden Holloway’s shot at the basket after the freshman guard beat Zakai Zeigler to the hoop.

“We always talk about Josiah being a fix-it guy, that’s our biggest thing we talk about,” Clark said. “Well with Dalton, he’s fixed a lot of things for him and DK has also learned from him.”

And make no bones about it, Knecht has improved as a defender over the course of the season both guarding his man and by deflecting passes and blocking shots when off the ball.

“If you watch Dalton from non-conference to now, he’s a way better defender,” Clark said.

Dalton Knecht
Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Knecht And James The Keys To Tennessee’s Faster Pace

Every offseason, Barnes talks about how Tennessee basketball wants to play at a faster pace. But this season the Vols turned it into reality.

Tennessee is playing with the 24th fastest pace offensively this season which is up from 246th nationally last season. The Vols are playing significantly faster than they ever have under Barnes. This season is the first time they’ve even ranked in the top 100 nationally in offensive tempo under the ninth-year head coach.

James and Knecht are the two biggest reasons why.

The Vols have embraced playing four perimeter players as their most-used lineup for the first time ever under Barnes. James’ ability to defend bigger players and be a force on the defensive glass is the primary reason it works.

“The versatility. The ability to guard, I don’t say four positions cause Josiah can guard five positions. The ability to guard anyone on the court. Switch off on anybody,” Clark said of James. 

“When he’s grabbing the ball off the rim and pushing it with the speed he’s been doing it at, it’s really hard to guard and it causes defenses to fall back in the paint and kind of be discombobulated. … It makes a really cool dynamic that ultimately helps us play at the fast pace that we do.”

As important as James’ versatility is to Tennessee’s changing play style, Knecht’s elite ability to score in transition is every bit as important.

Knecht can grab rebounds and push the pace or get out on the outer third of the court, catch outlet passes and immediately put pressure on opposing defenses. He’s undoubtedly the biggest transition threat that Barnes has had at Tennessee.

“They both can get it off the board and push it,” Clark said. “They both can dribble, pass and shot— which is ultimately what you want out of a basketball player.”

They’re both 6-foot-6 with similar builds but Knecht and James are radically different players. They’ve brought the best out of one another this season.

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