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Barnes: Santiago Vescovi ‘arguably the most improved player on the team’

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

Tennessee is set to embark on another basketball season, trying to bounce back from a difficult and inconsistent 2020-21. Rick Barnes really has churned most of his roster, trying to create more depth and balance moving forward.

Five-star point guard Kennedy Chandler is the prized recruit of the incoming class. The top 20 overall prospect is set to run the show for Tennessee this season, giving the Vols the creator that they so badly needed at so many points last year. But what about the other guy?

Santiago Vescovi is now a grizzled vet, entering his third year in the program. As we’ve seen so many times, this is kind of where players start to turn a corner with Barnes. It sounds like that could happen here with Vescovi, following an inconsistent season.

“Santiago Vescovi is arguably the most improved player on out team,” Barnes said on Tuesday. “He does so many things. It’s fun to watch him play and practice. He’s gotten himself in elite shape, and in order to become an elite player, that is where it starts.”

Vescovi joined Tennessee two years ago midseason, immediately giving the Vols a much-needed shooter. However, his defense left something to be desired and his athleticism was seemingly limiting last season. Those are things that he has gone to work on this offseason.

“His defense was a bit of a question when he first joined our program, but he’s developed into one of our best on-ball defenders,” Tennessee assistant Mike Schwartz said. “He has done an amazing job transforming his game. Even though he’s not the most athletic or the fastest, his anticipation skills, his pace, his feet, his ability to keep team’s off balance and know when to turn the pressure up is very high level.”

Where Vescovi fits in the rotation is an interesting conversation. It’s probably not as simple as ‘backup point guard.’ Vescovi’s shooting is an asset, along with his now veteran presence. He sort of was a player with a true home in spots last year, as Jaden Springer morphed into a lead guard role at the midway mark of the season. Vescovi played off-ball guard some as Barnes tried to spark the offense. As you know, nothing really worked.

Everything is different this year though. Now with two true creating point guards — one being an NBA-level prospect — I want to see where Vescovi lands. Keep in mind that Victor Bailey Jr. and Justin Powell are a big part of the conversation here, too.

“With Kennedy Chandler coming in, he has come in and shown us what was expected and what we’ve seen him do over the years while recruiting him,” Barnes said of the point guard position. “We got very fortunate and blessed to get Zakai Zeigler at the end. Those three guys have really helped each other. That position is probably the most competitive on the floor every single day because of the fact that all three are high-level competitors. They are dedicated and determined to get the most out of their abilities. They have embraced each other and know they can help each other. There could be times this year where all three may be on the court at the same time because of the versatility that all three have.”

Vescovi was streaky and inconsistent last season on his way to averaging 8.7 points per game. He added 3.1 assists, while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. Now a junior, what kind of leap can he make?