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Tennessee’s Tourney Hopes Rest on Two of the Unlikeliest NBA Prospects

It’s been more than a decade since coach Rick Barnes came up short in the NCAA tournament with Texas freshman Kevin Durant, one of the most talented and productive players in college history. Now at Tennessee, Barnes has flipped his own script by developing unheralded recruits into legitimate NBA talents. His two best players might reward him with his first Final Four since 2003.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Rick Barnes is making the most of his second chance at Tennessee. The longtime Texas head coach churned out one-and-done players in his last decade in Austin, most notably Kevin Durant, only to see his teams consistently come up short in the NCAA tournament. Barnes is doing more with less in Knoxville, building an elite team (29-5 record and the no. 2 seed in the South regional this season) around older players whose lack of ideal NBA measurables kept them in school. His two best players—junior Grant Williams and senior Admiral Schofield—would have been considered tweeners without an NBA position a generation ago. Those types of players have become more valuable in recent years, but the league still won’t draft them until they are finished products. Barnes has found a better blueprint for success in his first four seasons at Tennessee: produce future NBA role players, not stars.

The Volunteers are built around the inside-outside combination of Williams and Schofield. Williams, at 6-foot-7 and 236 pounds, is a one-man offense who can play with his back to the basket, face up defenders out to the 3-point line, and pick apart the defense as a passer. He is averaging 19.0 points on 56.5 percent shooting, 7.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.4 blocks per game. Schofield is his favorite target, a muscle-bound (6-foot-6 and 241 pounds) shooter who can also put the ball on the floor and finish at the rim. He is averaging 16.2 points on 47.6 percent shooting, 6.1 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.

There are many benefits to building an NCAA team around two experienced players. The most obvious is their physical maturity. Williams (20) and Schofield (21) look like a WWE tag team, having spent the past few years living in the weight room. They know how to use their strength to their advantage: The two play an absurdly physical brand of basketball that allows them to impose their will on opponents. They are almost impossible to move on defense, and they can power through defenders on offense. Any team that plays Tennessee is in for a war. Gonzaga has an NBA-caliber frontcourt with two likely first-round picks (junior Rui Hachimura and redshirt junior Brandon Clarke), and they looked ready to tap out by the end of their 76-73 loss in December.

The Volunteers also have more experience playing with each other than most elite teams. Their top six players have played the past two seasons together. Their starting five is made up of two seniors (Schofield, and center Kyle Alexander) and three juniors (Williams, point guard Jordan Bone, and redshirt combo guard Lamonte Turner), and their sixth man (wing Jordan Bowman) is a senior too. Barnes organically grew a team over multiple seasons, something he rarely did at Texas. Every time he put together a good team for the Longhorns, he immediately lost most of it to the NBA. He sent 10 underclassmen to the NBA draft in his last 10 years in Austin.

Barnes didn’t get many chances to coach a player as accomplished and experienced as Williams. As a sophomore, Williams won SEC Player of the Year honors, but his NBA prospects were still dim: He was a relatively one-dimensional 6-foot-7 post scorer without a 3-point shot. It doesn’t matter how dominant a player with his skill set is in college, Williams would have to diversify his game to play at the next level. That is the type of recruit that an NCAA coach should covet. A player who sticks around a college campus for three or four seasons can be far more valuable than a more talented recruit who walks out the door in nine months. Tennessee lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament last season on a miracle shot by Loyola-Chicago. The Volunteers would have had to start over this season if their best player had been more NBA-ready.

Williams was the SEC Player of the Year again this season as a junior, but he is a much different player than he was last season. He has improved across a number of categories:

Grant Williams’s Sophomore-to-Junior Evolution

Grant Williams 2017-18 2018-19
Grant Williams 2017-18 2018-19
2PA 10.3 9.9
2P% 49.7 59.4
FTA 6.1 7.3
FT% 76.4 82.6
3PA 0.7 1.3
3P% 12 34.1
AST 1.9 3.1
TOV 2.1 2.2

It is the same story for Schofield, who became a knockdown shooter in four seasons under Barnes. He went from shooting 30.1 percent from 3 on 2.6 attempts per game as a freshman to 41.1 percent from 3 on 4.6 attempts per game as a senior. Schofield has an unusual combination of size, speed, and shooting ability. There aren’t many players with his frame who can run around screens off the ball (he gets 15.6 percent of his offensive possessions of those plays, according to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports) and knock down shots off movement. He doesn’t have as diverse an offensive game as Williams, but he should be able to fill a role as a 3-and-D player at the next level.

Both Williams and Schofield are slightly different twists on P.J. Tucker, one of the more unheralded of Barnes’s players at Texas. Tucker, a 6-foot-6 and 245-pound combo forward, was taken at no. 35 overall in 2006, but the NBA didn’t know what to make of him at the time. He was written off as an undersized big man, and he lasted only two seasons before heading overseas. He made it back in 2012 with the Suns before eventually becoming an elite small-ball power forward, a position that didn’t exist when he was younger, for the Rockets. Tucker has the strength to battle with bigger players inside, the quickness to stay in front of smaller guards in the pick-and-roll, and the shooting ability to spread out the defense at the 3-point line. He even played long stretches of the 2018 Western Conference finals as a small-ball center.

Being a tweener is no longer a bad thing in the NBA. Positional responsibilities are more fluid than ever. A team that drafts Williams or Schofield will be able to find roles for them on both ends of the floor. They both have the strength and quickness to slide between multiple positions on defense as well as the skills to play on the perimeter on offense. Their floors are higher than most players in their draft range (late first round to early second) because they can contribute immediately to a good team. And their ceilings may not be that low, either, because there is so much room for them to grow as shooters. Williams has taken only 11.6 percent of his field goal attempts from 3 this season, while Schofield is at 34.5 percent. Tucker is at 73.0 percent for the Rockets, whose 3-point-heavy style of play could soon become the new normal.

The best chance for Tennessee to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament may be to embrace that style and go super-small. They have been dominant when they have benched their three traditional big men (Alexander and sophomores John Fulkerson and Derrick Walker) and played Williams and Schofield next to three perimeter players. According to the tracking numbers at Hoop Lens, those lineups have an offensive rating of 126.0 and a defensive rating of 104.0 in 254 possessions. There is nowhere to hide a bad defender when the Volunteers are spreading the floor with five capable 3-point shooters, and both Williams and Schofield are stout enough to control the lane on defense.

Teams whose best players are upperclassmen are the best bet in March. Most of the one-and-done players in last year’s draft were sent home in the first weekend of the tournament. Only two teams built around freshmen (Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015) have won an NCAA championship since the one-and-done era began in 2006. Shaka Smart, who took over for Barnes at Texas, has seen the downsides first-hand. He has had a one-and-done center each of the past three seasons (Jarrett Allen, Mohamed Bamba, and Jaxson Hayes, who is projected as a lottery pick if he declares) and made the tourney only once. He has to change the identity of his team each season, and he hasn’t benefited from the growth of his best players, who have one foot out the door as soon as they arrive.

Williams and Schofield were never supposed to play in the NBA. They were both three-star recruits ranked outside the top 150 nationally in their respective high school classes. Barnes shaped their pro careers far more than he did for guys like Durant and Myles Turner, who developed mostly in the NBA. More NCAA coaches may have to make the same transition: The NBA could eliminate the one-and-done rule as early as 2022.

College basketball will survive. Even if fewer stars play in the NCAA, it is still the best place for role players to learn their craft, which, as we’re seeing in Tennessee, is a win-win for everyone involved. Barnes developed Williams and Schofield into NBA-caliber players, and they may get him to his first Final Four since 2003.