Tennessee basketball is slated to produce an NBA draft class with multiple first round picks—a feat not accomplished by the program since 1977. That’s right, not since the days of Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld has the basketball team witnessed such NBA draft success.
It hasn’t happened yet...but if you believe the mock drafts, and you believe the NBA writers, the Volunteers are almost guaranteed to have both Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer as 44-year streak enders. That’s a fitting decoration for two players who gave their all for the Volunteers on the court—even if the season didn’t end as planned. Both were thrilling to watch and made many fans proud.
That’s not all! Even though he’s not projected a first rounder, everyone’s favorite Frenchman Yves Pons also has a chance to hear his name called. If you had predicted that a couple years ago, most fans would’ve laughed. Now, they cheer.
The projections for this group of three is very spread out. We sat down and looked at the most recent buzz around all three, and explained why exactly they’re projected where they are. We also gave our take on where we think they’ll end up, and what teams you might need to be preordering a jersey from soon.
Keon Johnson - Top 10
Johnson has found himself the darling of NBA mock drafts as of late. His end-of-season burst has put him squarely in the discussion for a top 10 selection. Which is a scenario that few had predicted when the season began.
Johnson’s raw athleticism and explosion are what puts him near the top of the board. Athleticism is key in the NBA, and teams are more willing to take risks on guys that test off the charts. You could see some glimpses of it all coming together as the team entered the back half of the season, with Johnson having some massive performances in the month of February.
That being said, there’s a real chance that Johnson falls a little in the first round. I don’t think he’ll be available by pick 20 or anything, but he does have some concerns with his shooting ability in particular. Any NBA team will be banking on some improvement when they draft him. Some of it could be linked to Tennessee’s reluctance to shoot the three, but 27 percent from behind the arc is not a good number for a guard drafted in the top 10.
The latest SBNation mock draft has Johnson going to the Toronto Raptors with the 7th pick. Other teams to look out for include the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Orlando Magic.
Jaden Springer - Top 20
A bit of role reversal here for Tennessee’s top two players. Whereas Springer was widely considered the better NBA prospect to start the season, he is now viewed as more of a project than Johnson in some regards.
I mentioned some of the concerns with Springer in his previous article. Basically, if you’re an NBA team that is drafting Springer, you believe he’s going to refine his game enough to succeed in the NBA. As the season went on, some of Springer’s limitations became apparent, with a somewhat limited offensive skillset and middle-of-the-pack athleticism rearing its head.
That being said, there’s a good reason Springer is projected as a first round pick. He’s a talented defender who has all the tools necessary to defend every type of backcourt player. In addition, while the concerns with athleticism/offensive refinement are real, Springer has shown an ability to attack the rim and shoot 3-pointers at a decent clip. He’s far from a net negative on offense.
Springer has played well enough for a top 20 selection, and he could sneak in to the top 10 picks if the process goes will for him. I still wager he’ll end up around the 15-20 range.
Yves Pons - Late 2nd Round
I said this on Twitter, but it bears repeating: Pons has the potential for very long NBA career. The thinking is, we know Pons has the requisite athleticism and length to stay afloat in the league. He’s never going to be a dynamite scorer, and I don’t imagine he’ll ever be a starter. But his defensive prowess is pretty obvious. A guy like him, who has all the measurables and a track record of defensive production, can be used on basically every NBA team in the league. Even if it’s just a rotational or situational rule, you want guys like Pons on the floor for some possessions.
I’d wager his progress at Tennessee is also very encouraging. Pons went from an offensive black hole with defensive upside, to a reliable hybrid player who raised the defensive caliber of your starting five. That sort of jump is intriguing to NBA teams, who might feel he’s a quick learner that can reach his ceiling after a year or two in the league.
Still, the lack of solid offense means he’s too risky for a first round pick. If you’re snatching up a role player in the draft, you can afford to wait for quite some time. While there’s a decent possibility he goes undrafted, I’ll go out on a limb and say Pons hears his name called as the draft winds down.