Just two seasons after being picked by the media to finish 13th in the SEC, Tennessee sits at No. 1 in the country. And on the surface, it seems the transformation from expected bottom-dweller to one of the preeminent teams in the country rests squarely on the broad shoulders of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. Their evolution from three-star recruits to the No. 1 (18.8) and No. 2 scorers (17.7), respectively, in the SEC has been well-documented. Without the studly duo’s emergence, Tennessee wouldn’t be posturing for a No. 1 seed and eventually (read: hopefully), the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance.
However, part of what makes this team so dangerous to opponents and so endearing to Tennessee fans is that it’s not a two-man show. Currently, Tennessee has six players averaging double figures in points per game, and it seems if Williams or Schofield is having an off night, somebody steps up and provides the Vols with the boost necessary to pull out a win. So in this series, we’re gonna take a look at several players on the Vols’ roster, and I’ll make a case for why each could be considered Tennessee’s Most Valuable Player.
There’s ample evidence that Bone is Tennessee’s most improved player as well its most important. Offensively, his stats are trending up almost exclusively. His scoring average of 13.4 point per game is up about 83 (!!) percent from last season’s average of 7.3. That’s currently the biggest scoring increase on the team, and the 13.4 average also puts him in the top-20 of the SEC for points per contest.
The reason for this increase is two-fold: he’s being more assertive offensively, but he’s also shooting the ball better. Last season, Bone took less than seven shots a game; this season that number is up to 11.
His true shooting percentage is up nearly eight percentage points from 42.5 to 50.3, and his effective FG percentage is up from 37.7 to 43.4. His free throw percentage is currently sitting at 86 percent, up from last season’s 82 percent.
The only place where Bone’s percentages are down is from behind the arc. In fact, his 3-point shooting is down significantly from last season – he’s shooting just 26 percent.
Despite the dip in long-ball proficiency, Bone’s PER (player efficiency rating) is 18.8, up almost five percentage points from last year. His usage rating is up this year, too. This season, Bone is involved in 22.3 percent of Tennessee’s offensive plays, which is good for third on the team behind, you guessed it, Williams and Schofield.
This means that while there’s a significant drop in Bone’s percentages on one of the most efficient shots in basketball, the 3-pointer, he’s more involved than he was last season and still being a substantially more productive and efficient player.
This season, Bone is using his speed and quickness to get to the basket. He’s said that his job is to get to the elbows and initiate the offense from there. But he’s so quick that defenses are having a hard time getting set up and in front of him in time to cut of his drive. It’s been happening all season, but let’s take a look at a couple possessions from the Arkansas game as examples.
Here we see Bone getting the outlet pass off a missed shot. As you can see, the game clock reads 18:04. In most of these pictures, the clock will be circled because I want to make sure you’re seeing the speed at which all this happens. It looks like Arkansas has done a pretty good job of getting back on defense. It seems that Tennessee doesn’t have the numbers to push the fast break.
Three seconds later, the ball is passed half court, and Arkansas’ defense is at least somewhat set. Jalen Harris, No. 5 in red, goes under the sort-of-moving-screen-that-never-gets-called, and you can see the light-blue dotted line that represents Bone’s subsequent path. From this shot, it looks like 6-foot-10, eventual lottery pick Daniel Gafford could take a side step and cut off Bone’s drive.
If you compare this picture with the last one, you can see that Bone covers about 10 feet in one second. He goes from the “S” in the Tennessee logo to the 3-point line. You can see Harris on the back side of Bone’s hip –he’s in no position to stop the drive. Bone’s quickness also put Gafford in no-man’s land. I always hated geometry in school, but even I can see that Bone has the angle on the uber-athletic Gafford. This first step is impressive. It’s not like Bone is blowing by some stiff; Gafford is stupid gifted as an athlete. Nonetheless, Bone has the angle and a wide-open path to the hoop.
So Bone initially got the outlet pass with the clock reading 18:04, and he’s going up for the layup with the clock reading 17:59. He manages to travel damn-near the length of the court in about five seconds. Insert all the fire emojis here.
The junior point guard isn’t just using his speed to score. He’s said in interviews that he’s more comfortable in the offense, and more acutely aware of his responsibilities within it. So, yes, he’s scoring more often and more efficiently, but his assist numbers are up, too.
Last season, Bone averaged 3.5 assists per game, and this season that number jumped to 6.3. So that’s another category in which Bone statistical increase is at or above 80 percent. He’s got five or more assists in 13 of 16 games, and he’s reached double-digits in assists three times. Last year, he didn’t have a single game with more than 10 assists and recorded five or more assists just eight times in 35 games.
Here’s a possession from the Arkansas game that ended in one of Bone’s eight assists.
Bone gets the outlet pass and starts to press the ball up court. Bone has three teammates and three defenders essentially in his rear view. I’ve got his and Lamonte Turner’s paths marked out in blue. 13:10 reading on the game clock.
Two seconds later, Bone has passed half court and drawn the attention of all four Arkansas defenders on this side of the floor. You can see all the Razorbacks’ eyes are on Bone. Bone’s eyes are straight ahead, belying the fact that he’s about to hit Lamonte Turner perfectly in stride with a precision bounce pass.
Now Turner is going up for the layup, and the only Arkansas player close is freshman Keyshawn Embery-Simpson. But he’s not close enough, and Turner converts the easy basket. The clock reads 13:07. Three seconds. Two points. Easy money.
These examples are just from one game, but Bone’s emergence is a major reason for the statistically excellent season Tennessee is having. The Vols currently rank sixth in the country in points per game (87), they’re ranked second in the country in team offensive rating (120.5), and 14 of their 15 wins have come with double-digit margins of victory.
Jordan Bone is key to this team’s success.