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Rick Barnes on Zakai Zeigler: ‘He’s been as impressive as anyone I’ve ever seen’

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Caitie McMekin/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Out of seemingly nowhere in the late summer, Tennessee added one more member to the class of 2021. Zakai Zeigler, a completely unknown point guard out of New York in the class of 2022, suddenly was set to decide on a handful of big time college basketball offers.

It was a Peach Jam performance that did the trick for Zeigler, and even that the Tennessee staff was on hand to see. The Volunteers made their offer there and Zeigler ultimately accepted and chose to reclassify to the class of 2021. That cleared the way for Zeigler to immediately join the program, perhaps with a chance to get some run as the second point guard behind five-star freshman Kennedy Chandler.

Zeigler was likely sold by Rick Barnes’ ability to develop players, which is probably why he opted to get into the program as quickly as possible. In just a short amount of time in Knoxville, Zeigler has already impressed his new head coach.

“He’s been as impressive as anyone I’ve ever seen,” Rick Barnes said last week. “Santi walked in and had to play, Zakai, what he’s been able to do in such a short period of time coming in, you would not think that he had missed that much during the summer.”

Zeigler shot 8-11 overall in his breakout Peach Jam game, shooting 7-8 from 3-point range. He scored 23 points and added a whopping ten assists. Barnes quickly pounced, perhaps finding his future point guard with Chandler expected to go one and done. Four-star point guard BJ Edwards has also already committed to the class of 2022.

So what will this relative unknown bring to the table for Tennessee?

“He’s quick, he’s fast, he’s elusive and he’s still learning the system too,” Barnes said. “But he has been good. I think he, Kennedy and Santi, they’ve just been good for all three of those guys because they’ve been getting their share at the point. Santi has a little more pace with it but both those guys bring a speed and quickness to us we haven’t had in a couple years.”

Tennessee’s guard rotation is something to watch closely as the season begins. This is Chandler’s show to run, but Santiago Vescovi seemed to bounce around in and out of a point role last year. Could Barnes go with Zeigler as the primary backup and let Vescovi operate more as a shooter? That might be something we see later in the year when Zeigler really starts understanding the system. The Vols also have shooting guard Justin Powell and Victor Bailey, along with freshmen Jahmai Mashack and Quentin Diboundje.

How quickly will Zeigler be worked in? Barnes isn’t one to just hand out compliments. If I had to guess, he’s going to be a factor in the guard rotation. The only issue might be Tennessee’s completely loaded early-season schedule. Zeigler lacks size, but he brings play-making and shooting to the table — two things Tennessee desperately needed last season.

Tennessee’s first game will come in the form of a scrimmage on October 30th against Lenior-Rhyne. That will be an ideal spot for Zeigler to get his feet wet and to try to build some chemistry.