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Three Things: Mizwho

On Tennessee’s young guys in the post, Kennedy Chandler and a Victor Bailey renaissance

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee got back in the win column Tuesday evening with a 80-61 win against Missouri, and here are three things.

A big youth movement

Super-senior John Fulkerson played just six minutes against the Tigers due to a hip pointer he suffered against Arkansas, according to Rick Barnes’ postgame comments. That opened the door for Brandon Huntley-Hatfield’s fifth start of the season and gave the fans a chance to see some different lineup combinations featuring Hatfield and fellow freshman post player Jonas Aidoo.

Hatfield played a productive 18 minutes. He scored six points and snagged six rebounds — including a career-high four on the offensive glass. Though he made just on shot, a dunk, and missed a couple shoulda-been easy looks near the rim, this was the best he’s looked since the first Kentucky game.

After the game, Barnes said he was a “force,” and mentioned his positioning as a reason why he put a stamp on the game without scoring much. I have an example for you:

This is probably Hatfield’s single-best play so far this season. Check out all that ground he covered between Chandler releasing the shot and the ball hitting the rim. He tracks the ball in the air, maneuvers to the sorta-back-left hip area of the Missouri player and then explodes off the ground to a nearly-forearm length higher than his competition to snatch the ball outta the air. There’s no hesitation or consideration for the defender between him and the rim after that — it’s just hammer time.

He had trouble guarding Missouri’s Kobe Brown on the other end, but overall he was active and engaged, which is great for Tennessee.

While Hatfield’s had a more slow-burn type development, Jonas Aidoo has been arguably Tennessee’s best all-around post player since his reemergence five games ago. A brief summary of everything prior:

He played five combined minutes in Tennessee’s first three games against ETSU, ‘Nova and UNC. He recorded five minutes and his first career points in the fifth game against Presbyterian and then hit two FTs in three minutes in the Vols’ ninth game against USC Upstate. But then we didn’t see him again until he played the last two minutes of the 24-point win against South Carolina, UT’s 22nd game, earlier this month.

The next game, Tennessee’s first after losing Olivier Nkamhoua for the season and Aidoo’s first time playing extended minutes, he collected a team-high three offensive rebounds, with all three coming within three minutes of him stepping on the floor. He went just 1-3 from the field and had three fouls, but he finished second on the team with four total rebounds for the game and, as Barnes put it, “looked like he belonged.”

He played just four minutes of Tennessee’s win against Vanderbilt, but since he’s played 18, 17 and 23 minutes against UK, Arkansas and Missouri, respectively. He had five points, seven rebounds (three offensive) and three blocks against the Wildcats; and then he scored four with six boards (three offensive) against Arkansas and shot a combined 4-6 in the two games.

He wasn’t great offensively against Missouri — he shot just 1-8, and the one make was an and-1 dunk — but he grabbed five boards and showed us flashes of being an elite defender.

Below, 6-foot-5 Javon Pickett against 6-foot-10 Jonas Aidoo.

Pickett ends up scoring, but Aidoo moves his feet pretty well and manages to stay on the smaller, wing player’s hip and contest the shot.

Aidoo’s also become Tennessee’s de facto rim protector. He had three blocks against Kentucky and then three more against Missouri Tuesday evening. Below, he erases a woulda-been layup from Missouri’s Kobe Brown.

Aidoo’s decently athletic, but his 6-foot-10 height paired with those long arms — a reported 6-foot-10 wing span — means even when he’s really not in position to block a shot, he actually is.

When Nkamhoua went down with his injury, the Vols lost their most mobile post defender and their rim protector. Aidoo isn’t a 1-to-1 replacement, but his defensive skillset mirrors Nkamhoua’s to a degree and lessens the magnitude of Olivier’s injury for the rest of Tennessee’s season.

Chandler the handler

Freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler was fabulous against Missouri. His stat line — 23 points on 9-12 shooting with eight rebounds, six assists, two steals and zero turnovers — underscores his dominant performance, thought it doesn’t quite capture how masterful he was.

Sliding in and out as Tennessee’s primary ball handler, his speed and acceleration gave various Tiger defenders absolute fits. But it wasn’t just buckets off straight-line drives. He manipulated the defense with his handle and pace. I mean — what good is a fast car if you can’t slow down to take a curve?

Above, Chandler uses an in-and-out dribble as the appetizer to get the defender leaning forward, ever so slightly, on his front foot. But when he gets to the elbow, it’s the hesitation, the split-second pause and explosion out of it that really creates the space to get the layup up and off the glass just outside the reach of the defender.

At his size, Chandler’s game is always gonna be predicated on his speed. But it’s not just valuable when he’s got the ball in his hands. And that’s where I feel like we’ve seen the most growth in his game this year: how he uses that speed off the ball. That advent as a peripheral threat, grouped with Zakai Zeigler’s emergence and Santiago Vescovi’s workman like consistency has propelled those three to Tennessee’s third-best three-man collective in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, per Evan Miya’s lineup tool.

While Chandler’s not made a ton of cuts this season, just 14 possessions via Synergy, he’s scored 23 points on those instances to an elite 1.64 points per-possession figure that puts him in the NCAA’s 97th percentile.

We see a variety of movement above: some violent and jarring and some softer and subtle. Chandler’s always been ball dominant, as is the case with most 5-star players in high school, and so it makes sense that he’s just now really getting the hang of how much damage he can do in an offense’s creases.

Mastering this movement off the ball will do wonders for Chandler’s efficiency, and we see some fruits of this notion in the young point guard’s shot chart.

Cutting effectively helped Chandler get more looks at the rim — eight of his 12 attempts came in the paint. It’s been a process for him, trying to figure out what he can and can’t get away with at this level. But moving him off the ball and letting him use his athletic gifts gives the Vols a sorta backdoor path to good shots when defenses are keying on stopping him from getting to the hoop when he’s acting as the offense’s primary initiator.

This is already long — so briefly: the Colorado game has been the standard for Chandler’s play this year, and rightly so. He was great. But that game was kinda just point-and-click. Ball screen, a defensive switch and Kennedy taking the mismatch in for a layup. Wash, rinse, repeat. Against Missouri, we saw a much more varied and balanced approach. He didn’t take any midrange shots or floaters, but that’s just because he didn’t need to. Changing the philosophy behind how to get layups led to more of them.

He also hit two of his four 3-point attempts, led the team in both rebounds and assists, pilfered his season-average two steals and didn’t have a turnover. It’s sorta counterintuitive to say something like “let’s hope this was the proverbial light coming on,” for a guy who’s averaging 14 points, five assits on a 50-percent effective field goal shooting figure, but this game was indicative of just how good Chandler can be.

Victor(y) Bailey

Before the season started, I, and many others, was excited about adding another top-5 recruiting class to this team’s established core. I considered Bailey an integral piece of that core. I mean, he was Tennessee’s leading returning scorer. Did you even know that? I didn’t until literally today. But for most of this year, he’s been an absolute non-factor. Though there’s been, well, moments.

He was a spark playing in his home state against Texas. Tennessee lost, but Bailey came in cold, took a charge and had a tip-in layup during a Vols 16-0 near the end of the game.

He’s been last year’s Victor Bailey for just one game, in Tennessee’s sixth against Presbyterian. He hit four 3s in 18 minutes.

Overall, though, through non-conference play and the Alabama game (12 contests), he averaged fewer than five points and shot 23 percent on triples in 15 minutes. Since then, he’d averaged six minutes and less than a half made shot per game.

But against Missouri, Bailey nailed a 3-pointer with 12:55 left in the first half, and I swear I saw him grow about an inch when the weight left his shoulders. Bailey went on to score 11 points in the game of 5-8 shooting, and he did so without taking another 3. He found a home on the elbows and scored with multiplicity.

Last year, Bailey’s ability to hit 3s was vital, even though it came in streaks, because Tennessee didn’t have many players who shot well from the outside. Both Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson did most of their work around the paint or at the rim.

This year’s team is different, though. Nobody shies away from the outside shot, but when the shooting goes cold, the offense struggles to produce. If Bailey could give Tennessee more of what we saw against Missouri — him scoring occasionally in isolation and getting looks near the free throw line and at the rim out of the motion continuity — it would take some of the pressure to score off Vescovi, Zeigler and Chandler. It would be a cold drink of water on a summer day.