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What to make of Josiah-Jordan James

The Vols dusted the Tar Heels without Josiah-Jordan James — what’s that mean long-term?

NCAA Basketball: Tenn-Martin at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee’s fresh off a nearly 20-point win against a (previously ranked) top-20 opponent, and for most of the game, the Vols’ defense made the Tar Heels’ offense look like its whole foot was stuck in tar — not just its heels. Tennessee’s collective defensive effort held UNC to below its season averages in a few key categories:

  • Points: 72 (83)
  • Effective FG %: 49.1 (56.2)
  • Offensive rebounds: 5 (9.3)

And the Vols made it happen without its two-years running highest-rated defender, Josiah-Jordan James. That’s gotta be a net positive for the team, right?

Before I go any further, it’s important that I qualify all this by iterating that drawing big-picture conclusions from one game is sorta like deciding to quit your serving job because the clown at table 23 just gave you a crinkled blue Ben Franklin and told you “keep the change, big dog,” on his $95 check. Nah, chief, why don’t YOU keep the change.

That job pays your bills, and a bad experience, or two, or three, doesn’t mean your bills disappear, and by week’s end, your percentage will have worked its way back up to 10 or 15 or 20-percent, or whatever number it is that keeps you afloat.

Back to the point, as great as it was to see the Vols perform like that without James, it doesn’t mean the Vols don’t need him back and healthy sometime soon. He’s been too valuable for too long to write off his importance. But, what if there’s more going on with James than we’re aware?

His offense hasn’t looked right all year, which isn’t the declaration it might sound like given we’re not even 10 percent of the way through the schedule. But still —he’s got the lowest offensive rating on the team of all the players who’ve scored points so far this season, and worse, it’s the lowest by a considerable margin.

JJJ’s 12-th ranked O-rtg is 70.8, and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, the player with the next-lowest mark, is 102.3. Further, JJJ is forty points off his last year’s pace of 110 that was one of the best figures on the team. He’s hitting just two of his twelve shots attempts per-game for an 18-ish shooting percentage. Icky.

So, like, what’s the deal? He missed the UNC game with “flu-like,” symptoms, but could his strikingly-poor scoring numbers indicate that whatever’s going on has been going on longer than what’s been made public by Rick Barnes?

How well equipped is Tennessee to handle James missing extended time or if the sky is falling and he’s en route to dealing with some season-long bout with COVID and its residual effects like Fulkerson did last season?

The perimeter performance from the Vol guards against UNC was exceedingly encouraging, especially in the context of the whole team is still trying to find its way without Yves Pons roaming near the basket and waiting to return ill-considered shots to sender. Both guards Vescovi and Victor Bailey are having improved defensive seasons, with Vescovi rating out as the team’s third-best defender and Bailey posting a 96-ish defensive rating, which is about a three-point improvement from his Tennessee-career average.

But part of what makes James so important is his versatility — he’s almost like the stuffing or dressing if the Vols roster was a Thanksgiving menu. It’s that basketball malleability that lets him guard any position on the floor and average 2.7 steals and and 1.7 blocks per-game while still being one of the the team’s leading rebounders at 6-foot-6. The Vols definitely can’t replace that, and while Justin Powell seems like a natural replacement and is an offensive upgrade, no matter how good or bad James is shooting the ball, Powell’s just not the rebounder or defender James is.

I have my fingers crossed that James is back to form soon, but what do y’all think? Triple-J has been a bit of a polarizing topic among Vol fans, with some calling for his playing time to be reduced. That seems like a premature overcorrection at this stage in the year, what what’chall think?

Happy Thanksgiving, fools! Enjoy the day with your people.