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Season preview: Santiago Vescovi

NCAA Basketball: Lenoir Rhyne Bears at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Vescovi, like most guys on the team, didn’t have the season last year that many expected. I don’t mean to imply that he was bad last year, because he wasn’t. But I don’t think we saw the presumptive jump folks had hoped for after the way he burst onto the scene his first year in Knoxville.

The ‘20-’21 campaign was a bit odd for the whole team. Seniors Yves Pons and John Fulkerson regressed more than they improved. Newly-eligible deep threat Victor Bailey was frustratingly inconsistent. Five-star freshmen guards Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson never really quite found their ideal fits within the offense. It’s fair to say those concerns had ripple effects that bled into other spots on the team and subsequently created all new concerns.

What I’m getting at: some of Santi’s numbers fell, but his drop in production had more to do with the rest of the offense being out of sync than any outright dip in his play. His scoring went down, which can probably be at least partly attributed to his usage rate dropping. When he came on in such brazen fashion two seasons ago, he was thrown to the fire more out of necessity than choice. Lamonte Turner’s injury and Jordan Bowden’s decline in production left a void at Tennessee’s lead guard spot; thusly, Vescovi became an integral part of the Vols’ offense and posted a 23.7 usage rate, which was the highest of any Tennessee player who regularly played.

Going into last season, Tennessee had a surplus of backcourt players which was supposed to be a positive... an embarrassment of riches! Given that Vescovi was pretty turnover prone his freshman season — understandable given the circumstances — this influx of guards was going to maximize his utility as a shooter and mitigate that whole giving the ball away thing by allowing him to play off the ball more.

Instead, the Vols spent pretty much all year trying to make a general out of a group of admirals. Or, like, whatever rank is below general. Whatever, either way, UT had plenty of guards, but none of them truly suited to play point guard. Any real benefit to Santi playing off the ball was stepped on by the Vols’ overall inefficient offense that was rooted, at least partially, in the lack of a lead guard.

Vescovi still ended up handling the ball some, but Springer and Johnson were pretty ball-dominant, which played a part in Vescovi’s usage dropping from that 23.7 mark to 16.4 — the sixth-lowest mark on the team out of seven regular rotation players. His points per-game dropped two points from 10.7 to 8.7 though his shooting splits saw a bump from 37/36/81 to 39/37/82.

I think we’ve seen enough of Vescovi at PG to know him getting the lion’s share of lead guard duties on a consistent basis isn’t the best utilization of his skills, for him or for the team. But I think he can still be an offensive catalyst for a few reasons.

1. His shooting. In 211 career spot-up shooting possessions, he’s posted a pretty solid 1.1 points per possession. He’s been particularly lethal from deep: out of 46 career games so far, Santi’s hit at least three triples 15 times — which means there’s a 30-ish percent chance he’s gonna bury three shots from deep every time he plays. Those strike me as pretty good odds. The Vols were also 7-3 in Santi’s 10 games with at least a trifecta of triples last season. So, ya know, whatever that’s worth.

Something of note, though: he’s considerably more accurate on shorter 3s than longer ones. That’s a shocker, I know. But last season, he shot 40 percent on deep balls inside 25 feet and just 33 percent on 3s from farther out. I feel like that’s something that staff should make sure Santi’s aware of.

As a sorta related-off-shoot to his shooting, and despite his lack of elite athleticism and the absence of a blinding first step, Vescovi posted excellent numbers on the Vols’ transition possessions last season. (Obviously, Tennessee doesn’t run at a break-neck offensive pace, and if we were gonna compare it to a Marvel character, it would be much more Ben Grimm, “The Thing,” than Barry Allen, “The Flash.” Out of all 350-ish-plus NCAA teams, the Vols finished 296th in Warren Nolan’s pace rating (number of possessions divided by 40 minutes) at 66.5.) Per CBB Analytics, Santi shot 100 percent on his fast-break field goal attempts in ‘20-’21.

Despite the Vols’, uhhh, deliberate pace, transition possessions accounted for just shy of 17 percent of the Vols’ total possessions (the second-most utilized play type behind spot-up possessions at 28 percent). Vescovi finished fifth on the team in total transition plays but had the second-best points PPP figure at 1.36. He scored on 52 percent of his total transition possessions and finished in the NCAA’s 91st percentile for transition PPP.

More than 34 of his transition points last year came via 3s. I think he’s especially good in those situations partly because his form has a sorta set-shot type vibe, and on the break, there’s often an extra split-second — that he might not have in a half-court set — to get the ball off as the defense is scrambling to get its bearings.

2. His je ne sais quoi. My hope is that Vescovi gets the weight of being the team’s sole PG lifted once Kennedy Chandler hits the floor, and we see more of freshman-year Santi, minus the TOs, of course. If so, Vescovi can be an important offensive spark for Tennessee for the aforementioned shooting as well with his flair for the slick and creative. The 3s are easy to see, to count and to analyze. But style is a bit more difficult to measure with numbers. It’s almost gotta be experienced. It might be slippery to define, but buddy, when you see it, you know.

Though he’s shown he can use his ancillary athletic gifts — his vision, body control and ability to change pace and use angles to his advantage — to help him score, these aptitudes are perhaps most useful in his role as a facilitator. He blends all that stuff together into like a hooper’s guile that reminds me of longtime Spurs’ guard Manu Ginobili.

Since he’s not as fast as a lot of guards, he’s gotta use each and any other advantage he can. He displays an understanding of angles, tempo and spacing that’s all bolstered by his innately adept proprioception. In the above clip, he hesitates slightly to get the defender off balance, then tip-toes the baseline before dishing to Pons for the assist. Geometry and rhythm and spatial awareness. And feel.

There’s not a guy on this roster with this kinda vision, outside of probably Chandler.

That clip is from Santi’s freshman year, and the knock on him then was his proclivity for turnovers. While I’d wager there at least some correlation between his showmanship and his turnovers, I don’t have evidence that was the case.

It was his first season, yes, but he also finished one TO shy of the team-lead despite playing in just 19 games (the rest of the guys played in anywhere from the high-20s to 31 games). He finished the year giving the ball away 4.7 times per 40-minutes.

He reigned in the TOs to an extent last year — he dropped his per-40 figure to 2.6 — but it’s hard to really gauge how much of that is just from the fall in his usage rate.

Other than Vescovi limiting his TOs, the main constraint on his game is his unwillingness/ inability to get to the hoop. He took 19 shots at the rim his freshman season, but saw that number drop to just six last year. Going a bit further, Vescovi’s got 21 double-figure scoring games to his credit in two seasons at Tennessee, and only three of those games didn’t include multiple triples. And each of those three games were during his freshman season.

As good of a shooter as he is, it would greatly behoove Tennessee’s offense for him to get to the basket more which would thereby likely increase his chances at the free-throw line. Vescovi’s free-throw rate was 26.8 and fourth on the team, but Tennessee’s FT rate collectively was nothing special at just 34.4 which ranked it 92nd in the country. I’m hoping that taking some of the ball-handling pressure off Vescovi will allow him to operate a bit more freely. Getting him to the rim more often and letting him fly that flair he has as a scorer and facilitator will ideally open up Tennessee’s offense and maybe cause defenses to dial back the on-ball pressure and give him some more three-point opportunities in the half court, too.

Defensively, Santi’s not been a great defender at Tennessee but he’s not necessarily stuck out as an egregiously poor defender ala Victor Bailey. His defensive rating bumped up (even though it went down :smiley:) from 99.5 his freshman season to 94.8 last year, though that uptick can probably be somewhat explained by Tennessee’s team defense allowing .84 PPP in ‘19-’20 and dropping that to .81 last year.

He’s not awful on the ball, but his lack of athleticism hurts him here to a degree.

LSU’s Javonte Smart is quick, like super quick, and quite frankly nobody on Tennessee could stop him last year. Still — there are numerous clips from this game where you can see that Vescovi couldn’t stay in front of his man.

The Tennessee coaches haven’t been shy about praising the third-year guard this offseason, though. Rick Barnes has said he’s the most improved player on the team, and assistant Michael Schwartz mentioned Vescovi’s defensive development since his freshman season.

“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 recently.

But this is another area where getting Vescovi out of the primary guard spot may help the Vols. Getting him off the ball lets him use his anticipation to get into the passing lanes and score some steals and/ or deflections. It’s hard to track down anybody keeping official deflection numbers, but Vescovi finished second on the team in steals last season with 32.

Vescovi’s main role on this team is likely going to be as a 3-point shooter. We’ve seen him affect numerous games by heaving in points, three at a time. 3s are the most efficient shot on the court, and it weighs heavy on a defense’s morale when a guy can bury five or six in a game like Santi.

But his knack for the nifty, especially as a passer, is a facet of his game that I think we saw less of last year than we did his freshman season, though I don’t have the stats to back up that conclusion. I was at the scrimmage against Lenoir-Rhyne, and while his shot definitely wasn’t falling (1-9 total, 1-7 from 3) he tallied 7 assists and zero turnovers.

He’s even ditched the blonde hair. Classic Santi, indeed.