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Tennessee misses on Jabari Smith — what does it mean for the future of the frontcourt?

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a saying out there that nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. Not to discredit the quote’s originator, Ben Franklin, because, I mean, he did invent electricity with nothing more than a kite and a key (insert smiley face emoji). I can’t even produce an edible meal without the internet’s help and my girlfriend doing all the actual cooking. I’m TOTALLY baby-deer-hapless while ol’ Ben manufactured the entity that powers the world with twine and a hoop of metal. And he invented bifocals. Oh, and he also helped write the Declaration of Independence. No big deal. Some guys really get it all. But Ben missed something with his now famous remark about the only sureties in life. Ya’ll know me, though, we’re gonna take a hard left turn and talk more about those special humans who hit the genetic lottery, just for a minute. We’ll get back to Ben soon, I promise.

Glass me now, Glass me later

Franklin was a brilliant writer, thinker and inventor. I’m a Yankees baseball fan, so I want to spend some words on another guy who was just destined to win at life. Pictured above: Tampa Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow. He’s 6-foot-8, with supremely gorgeous hair that’s got a wavy flow, like the Young Thug/ Elton John tune “High.” It’s a hip-hop joint that blends Thug’s lyrics with John’s melody and vocals from his transcendent hit “Rocketman.” For those asking: I cannot either confirm nor deny the allegations that I cried the first time I heard this song.

Hell —Glasnow might have some stock in the Bosley hair restoration clinic — the timing is doesn’t even remotely line up, but I’m still sure Glasnow’s locks inspired Kansas hoops’ coach Bill Self’s own hair transplant decision. Somehow, someway. Most likely, it was some sort of Jedi mind trick type of retroactive influence.

AND . . .

like all that’s not enough, cuz beautiful people, just by being beautiful, totally get such raw deals in life (EYEROLL), another superior genetic gift bestowed upon Glasnow an elite ability to truly put the fast in a fastball. He throws a small, white sphere that travels nearly 100 miles per hour, often aimed directly into the strike zone. And it goes where he wants it to, a lot, from 60 feet away. Okay, but there’s more: cuz he’s got some weird curved fingers (ahem, genetics), when he wants it to, the ball will spin in a way that makes the flight path bend and break and warp and spin its way out of the strike zone and into a hitter’s oh-so futile oblivion.

OKAY — tangent done, back to life’s certainties. It’s really not Ben’s fault he missed this one im’a bout to get into. Brilliant as he was, there’s no way that he coulda predicted the list would now go: “death, taxes and Bruce Pearl signing dynamic basketball players at Auburn and being a real pain in the ass for the Tennessee basketball team.”

I’m using a bit of hyperbole here — since 2014, Pearl’s signed twelve 4-star and two 5-star players. That’s not outlandishly great or anything, but the first 5-star was Sharife Cooper in the 2020 class who’ll play this year. The trouble is that Pearl followed that up by securing another 5-star and overall fifth-rated player in the country, Georgia power forward Jabari Smith. Stay with me — I promise we’re gonna get relevant real soon. Like right now.

See, Smith was a Vol hoops high-priority recruit. He’s a lean, athletic, 6-foot-10, faceup forward with a smooth shooting stroke and the frame to add weight and become a dangerous shot-blocker.

For Vol fans, he was part of what would have surely been an Armageddon-inducing, dream scenario for this recruiting class. Tennessee was swinging for the fences by going after Smith, No. 3 overall prospect PF Paolo Banchero, and also No. 11 overall prospect PF Harrison Ingram with the hopes of joining one, two or all three of those guys with Memphis native and No. 2 overall point guard prospect Kennedy Chandler who committed to the Vols in August. It was always a former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle type of long shot, but, I mean, go big, or just don’t bother going at all, right?

Well, Jabari Smith was the last domino to fall when Pearl snatched him up this past Friday. It seemed like most thought Smith would land there, though that didn’t stop the Vols from trying. I’ll say though, when 4-star, 6-foot-5 small forward Jahmai Mashack committed in early September, it gave me inklings that Coach Barnes and staff had a feeling Smith would end up at Auburn.

It’s never fun to miss out on a 5-star player, and it won’t have much of an impact on this upcoming season, but it plants some seeds of concern for the following seasons.

GOOD NEWS: Tennessee’s front court this season should be good-to-really-damn-good. Yves Pons decided to return for his senior year, and we know what he brings to the table. In most games, he’s the best defender on the floor, for either team, and he’s just absolutely a shot-blocking menace. If you bring that weak shit into Pons’ house, he’s gonna send you home with your feelings hurt. Then it’ll get worse when you get home and find out your girl has been stalking his Instagram account cuz, I mean, look at the guy. My dude is married though, so try not to trip on your girl too hard.

John Fulkerson is coming off a breakout campaign during which he scored in the double figures 23 times in 31 games. He finished the season averaging nearly 14 points per game when his previous career high scoring average was 4.7 in his freshman year. The last 15 games of the year really boosted Fulkerson’s standing, when he was a legit SEC Player of the Year candidate by putting up nearly 17 points and seven rebounds on 58-percent shooting numbers.

Incoming grad transfer EJ Anosike will bring strength and grit and toughness around the rim — he’s a stout 6-foot-6 or 6-foot-7 and tips the scales at a burly 250 pounds. He led Sacred Heart with 11.7 boards per game but provided some scoring pop too, with a nearly 16 points per-game season scoring average.

BAD NEWS: Those guys are all seniors, so they’ll be gone after this next season and Tennessee will have a Vredefort-sized crater to fill in terms of on court production.

(NOTE: I had to look up the crater-that-shall-not-be-named — that’s a bad Harry Potter/ Voldemort joke, please carry on and we’ll agree to never speak of it again But that crater is HUGE. Its radius is like 190 miles and apparently it’s two Billion — for sure a capital-B Billion — years old. The asteroid that busted up in here and caused the impact is estimated to have been somewhere between six and nine miles in diameter. LIKE DAMN)

Any one of the three top-15 PF recruits Tennessee recruited and missed on this cycle would have been a huge boost to the borderline drastic dearth of post players on the horizon for 2022.

Yet, here we stand. Or, I guess there we will stand? I don’t know, whatever, you know what I mean. The other recently-recruited (and signed) post players for the Vols haven’t impressed. I mean, to be real about it, they’ve been disappointing — like how you go to McDonald’s and really, really, want some of that soft serve, but to literally nobody’s surprise, the machine is down for cleaning. Like, nah bro. It’s 3 p.m. C’mon now.

Drew Pember, Uros Plavsic and ORN — Olivier (oh-LIVE-ee-aye) Robinson Nkamhoua, gave me those kinda no-soft-serve feels watching them play last year.

All three players are sophomores, so there’s plenty of time for growth and Rick Barnes does kinda do this thing where he makes guys that weren’t so good, good (Admiral, Grant, Fulky — even tho Fulky was a 4-star recruit.)

After losing Admiral Schofield and Grant Williams to the NBA, Tennessee needed help down low. So the staff started playing Pons in the post instead of on the wing, which worked out brilliantly, and then Fulkerson had his break-out season. But the three newcomers I mentioned, ORN, Pember, Uros, didn’t do much to inspire hope for Tennessee’s front court of the future. ORN led the group in minutes played per game, at 11.4, while Uros averaged about seven and Pember averaged around five.

For most of the season, Barnes usually goes with an eight-or-maybe-nine man rotation. Meaning there’s not a whole lot of opportunity for minutes for the other guys. So the lack of playing time isn’t so troubling, it’s more than all three were relatively ineffective in the minutes they got.

Instead of looking at the player’s seasonal, per-game averages to evaluate the guy’s production, we’ll look to their per-40 minute numbers to level-out the statistical comparison. Uros Plavsic is listed at 7-feet tall, and that’s probably close to accurate. But he averaged just five rebounds per 40 mins. Only Bowden, Vescovi and Turner, all players who play on the perimeter, snagged fewer boards in their per-40 numbers. That’s real bad. Even worse, Plavsic didn’t record a single block for the year. He played in 16 games, logged 117 total minutes and didn’t block one shot. Like, yikes. I mean hell, at 7-feet tall, you’d think he’d just maybe even accidentally block one at some point. But no. I know this hurts, but let’s power through. He also shot the ball at 42 percent, an embarrassingly low total for a player whose shots should come from mostly within 5-10 feet. Oh yeah — and he led the team, averaging a whopping 8.5 fouls per 40 while nobody else averaged more than 5.5. I think it’s pretty fair to say he was last season’s biggest disappointment.

The next culprit: Knoxville native Drew Pember. Pember was the No. 7 ranked played in Tennessee, but overall just a 3-star prospect. At the time, I could see the appeal of adding him to the team — a tall, local kid who looked like he might be able to develop into what’s called a “stretch four.” All that really means is a tall guy who plays the post but can also stretch the floor with the ability to knock down shots from 3-point range. But in his limited minutes, he disappointed, too. He didn’t show any knack for shot making — he hit just three of his 15 3-point attempts and shot an overall 33 percent from the field per 40 mins. in 122 total minutes, he collected 22 rebounds and averaged a respectable 7.3 per 40. But he’s currently listed at 190 pounds, so it’s doubtful he has the strength to play consistently in the post through the grind of a full college basketball season. So what’s the plan for him? Where does he fit in? A stretch-four who can’t shoot? Or an overmatched power forward who’ll likely get eaten with a knife and fork in the post?

Olivier Robinson Nkamhoua was the best player of the three — he actually led the team in rebounds per 40 minutes with 10.6 (Fulkerson was second with 7.8). He was a 3-star player according to 247Sports, but he played his high school basketball in Finland. There, at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, he looked like a polished post player who could also face-up and attack off the dribble. Unfortunately, he never really looked comfortable on the floor his freshman season. That’s probably to be expected with the adjustment to SEC-level competition, He averaged more turnovers per 40 minutes than anybody on the team not named Santi Vescovi or Lamonte Turner. Those who are both guards who handle the ball a lot while ORN is a post player who doesn’t, so I’m sure you can see the distinction I’m driving at. He didn’t look interested in looking for an outside shot — he took just three 3s all season — but that may be sort of a derivative of Barnes’ coaching. Barnes might not want him looking for that shot, so I don’t really know if that’s a skill that develops eventually or not.

I don’t know how much opportunity these guys will get this year as the Vols have an influx of talent coming in with the 2020 recruiting class. But Barnes needs development from these three guys regardless.

Bruce snatched our final shot at adding another 5-star to this recruiting class, and he took Auburn to their first Final Four in 2019. His high-octane, shoot-a-buncha 3s offense is attractive to recruits and he’s hitting his stride in that department with a 5-star commit now in back-to-back seasons. He’s also beat Tennessee in two straight, including last season’s final game for the Vols, a 22-point smackdown win for the Tigers.

Really, I’ve changed my mind and decided to blame this on Ben Franklin. He had all those ideas and left us out in the cold. Apparently death and taxes aren’t the only sure things in life anymore, at least not for us Vol fans.