This summer Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae became just the eighth and ninth Vols taken in the NBA Draft in the last 25 years during the modern two-round format. The space between Dyron Nix & Doug Roth in 1989 and Stokes & McRae in 2014 includes eight Tennessee coaches, those nine selections spread out just enough for each coach to have at least one of them on their roster.
The program has certainly taken a step forward in the last ten years beginning with Bruce Pearl in 2005-06, but the tangible increase in success is yet to translate into an increase in NBA productivity. Only one of Pearl's players was taken in the NBA Draft (not counting McRae, who rode the bench his freshman season), a testament to what Pearl did here but also a sign of a rising ceiling. Cuonzo Martin finished the recruiting job on Jarnell Stokes and helped put both he and McRae in the draft.
So as we turn the page to Donnie Tyndall and the hopes of more draft picks and more Vols to follow in the NBA, we take a look back at these last ten years (technically nine seasons from Pearl through Cuonzo), full of many of the best basketball moments the program has known, and rank the ten most talented players from 2005-06 to 2013-14. The list is "most talented", not a "best college player" list which could only start with Chris Lofton, but remains fairly subjective. We welcome your opinion and comments below.
1. Tobias Harris
You have to start here. Tobias is the only Vol of the last ten years to become a regular starter in the NBA, last season averaging 14.6 points and 7.0 rebounds in 36 starts despite missing 20+ games early in the year with a high ankle sprain. He was drafted 19th in the first round by Charlotte in 2011, then traded to Milwaukee on draft night where he never really materialized. But after being moved to Orlando in February 2013 he has come on when healthy, putting in 17.6 points with the Magic at the end of that year. The 6'9" Harris is still just 21 years old after playing only one year at UT, swallowed up by Bruce Pearl's end and an inability to really mesh with Scotty Hopson. His three point shooting has dipped moving to the NBA line, but his scoring has been consistent with what he produced in one year at UT (15.3 points along with 7.3 rebounds). I don't know what his immediate future is in Orlando, but I do believe the best is still yet to come for Tobias.
2. Jarnell Stokes
The man-child played 2.5 seasons in Knoxville, increasing his productivity every year while carrying the five-star expectation to the NBA Draft. Stokes went early in the second round to the in-state Grizzlies and impressed during summer league play. We covered his entire career at length before the draft. There's a chance Stokes could surpass Tobias on this list with the weight of several NBA seasons to come if he can carve out a role in the paint. He clearly had more productivity in Knoxville with more opportunity than Tobias - we'll see if he can continue to live up to expectations on the game's biggest stage, but he was the most consistent player for the Vols in the Cuonzo Martin Era.
3. Jordan McRae
4. Scotty Hopson
One of the most interesting fantasy questions of Tennessee Basketball is "McRae or Hopson?" I give Jordan a slight advantage, but let's look at the numbers:
- Total points: 1,305
- PPG in Final Year: 17.0
- Career 3PT: 35.4%
- Total points: 1,521
- PPG in Final Year: 18.7
- Career 3PT: 34.3%
Because of Hopson's involvement with the 2010 team, he certainly has some clutch moments - sticking the game-winner against the Gators, leading the team in scoring against Kansas - and was downright unstoppable in the early part of the 2011 season. But I feel like McRae was the safer bet late in his career, and carried a heavier load; Hopson only had one 30+ point game, while McRae had four. McRae was also a strong shot blocker, while Hopson didn't have one particular defensive trait that stood out. If I had to pick one to play on my team, I'm taking Jordan McRae. He was just named to All-Vegas Summer League second team; SB Nation's Liberty Ballers says McRae has earned both a spot on the team and a chance at playing time as a rookie.
5. C.J. Watson
Watson was the third most popular player on Bruce Pearl's first squad, behind the next player on our list and the lovable Dane Bradshaw. But it was only Watson who played his way into the NBA, in his case coming up from the D-League and earning what is now a seven year career as a backup point guard, including three years in Golden State, two in Chicago, a year in Brooklyn and last year in Indiana. SB Nation's Indy Cornrows gave Watson a favorable review after his first season with the Pacers. This is the name we always go to when we say, "How come we can't get a point guard like..."
6. Chris Lofton
Turning in the best college career the Vols have seen since Allan Houston, Chris Lofton is easily the best Vol player who hasn't made the NBA in the last decade. Lofton is the SEC's all-time three point leader with 431 made treys and the fourth-highest scorer in program history. He put the Vols on his back during his sophomore season en route to a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Bruce Pearl was the match, Chris Lofton was the fuse. His quiet battle with cancer didn't keep him from being a major contributor on the Vols' 2008 SEC Championship squad that reached #1 in the nation. For an entire generation of Tennessee fans, Chris Lofton is the best there is.
7. Wayne Chism
Chism's reach in the Vol record book: 12th all-time in scoring, 5th all-time in rebounds, 2nd all-time in offensive rebounds, 10th all-time in blocks. This is what happens when you are first all-time in games played at this university, which means you were on a whole bunch of winning teams. Chism and the next guy on this list stand alone as core pieces of both the 2008 and 2010 Vol squads that reached new heights for the program.
8. J.P. Prince
King of the Stat Sheet, Prince played his way into pre-draft camps with an exceptional run in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. He played point guard and played power forward and would drop 20 points and 6 turnovers on you without warning.
9. Tyler Smith
A Vol career shortened by transfer and arrest, at his best Tyler Smith was option 1B for the Vols in 2008, earning first-team All-SEC honors alongside Chris Lofton. He was the best player on the 2009 squad that earned another division title before being dismissed midway through the 2010 season. Like most of this list, Smith has made a living playing basketball overseas.
10. JaJuan Smith
The McMinn County product remains third all-time in three point shooting for the Vols, and hit the biggest shots early in a couple of program-defining wins, at Texas in Bruce Pearl's first season, and at #1 Memphis in 2008. He was overshadowed at times by Lofton, Bradshaw, and Tyler Smith, but JaJuan was a freak athlete who could score a number of different ways and earned a shot at making the Dallas Mavericks roster.
Agree or disagree? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.