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Josiah-Jordan James: Tennessee’s X-Factor

Triple J isn’t just the key to a Tennessee victory over Longwood in round one, but he’ll be the single most important Vol as they hope to make a deep run in March

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Championship-Texas A&M vs Tennessee Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Josiah-Jordan James has been a catalyst for Tennessee late this season, posting some career-best numbers and having the most impact on the Vols in his third season under Rick Barnes. However, much like the Vols this season, it certainly didn’t start smoothly.

Coming off a promising sophomore campaign that saw James excel as a defender, it was his offensive game that everyone was waiting to see make the leap. For the first half of the season, Tennessee wasn’t getting much from James offensively. Though his defense continued to improve, James’ early season struggles could largely be attributed to a torn ligament in his left hand—his shooting hand—that he suffered in Tennessee’s loss against Villanova back in November, missing three games as a result.

When James returned, the struggles continued as he just didn’t seem comfortable shooting the ball, shooting 36 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from three. Then the calendar flipped to February.

Love is in the air in February, and Josiah-Jordan James was finally feeling the love from basketball again. James’ offensive numbers were still up and down throughout the month, but he began to assert himself much more aggressively as a scoring contributor for the Vols.

On February 2nd, the junior from Charleston, South Carolina, cracked the 15 point mark for the first time all season, scoring 20 points in Tennessee’s blowout win at South Carolina. Not only did he score 20, he shot 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, and for the first time all season, he looked healthy.

This game also coincided with the Vols losing Olivier Nkamhoua for the year, and while the rest of the month saw James struggle from the field, you could see a potential breakout brewing as he began to get more chances. He was playing confident, beginning to create his own shot, and he began to be the guy that snapped Tennessee out of their infamous mid-game lulls.

Enter March. The Vols are playing their best basketball of the season. Kennedy Chandler has added a killer three point shot as he began to take ‘the leap’, Zakai Zeigler has become a mainstay on the floor largely due to his suffocating on-ball defense, and Santi Vescovi has become the most lethal three-point shooter in the SEC. Amongst all of this is Josiah-Jordan James, who has quietly become a consistent, efficient scoring threat while playing great defense as a stretch four.

Over the final two regular season games and throughout the SEC Tournament, James averaged 15.4 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.4 steals and blocks respectively, shooting an outstanding 51.9 percent from three all while, again, playing outstanding defense along the perimeter and inside for the Vols.

Just how good has Josiah been with the metrics though? Per the brilliant Evan Miyakawa, Triple J ranks 16th for the overall season in Bayesian Performance Rating, or BPR for short, with a 57.4 BPR. BPR is, from the site “the sum of a player’s OBPR and DBPR. This rating is the ultimate measure of a player’s overall value to his team when he is on the floor. A higher rating is better”. Two other Vols rank within the top 50 in BPR alongside JJJ, them being Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi. James also ranks seventh in defensive BPR at 32.0. Kennedy Chandler ranks first overall in this category.

Since the beginning of March, these are Josiah’s advanced stats and percentages and where he ranks nationally among 1,341 players to play at least 3 games and 40+ percent of their team’s minutes in March (this basically eliminates players who’ve played either minimal minutes or one game in March, giving a more accurate visual for where he ranks), per Bart Torvik: 51.9 3PT% among players with 15+ attempts (25th), 126.3 offensive rating (103rd), 83.4 defensive rating (30th) 15.0 boxscore plus-minus (5th), 61.8 effective FG% (143rd). These are phenomenal marks from a player who has shown not just fantastic growth but necessary growth.

In every facet of the game, Triple J has taken off. His ascension alongside the Vols’ three guards playing overall very well lately makes this Vols group very dangerous, but what does this mean for the rest of March and Tennessee’s first round matchup with Longwood? Let’s take a look and descend into Madness.

Longwood provides some very unique challenges for Tennessee. They have physical, experienced guards who shoot the three very well. What they don’t have is great size. Longwood doesn’t have a player taller than 6-foot-7 with those guys playing primarily inside, and while an obvious problem emerges there as the Vols rotate four guys inside 6-foot-9 and taller, where this primarily favors Tennessee is on the wing, specifically with Josiah-Jordan James.

The Lancers’ biggest glaring issue in this matchup is going to be wing depth. While 6-foot-4 Isaiah Wilkins is statistically their best perimeter defender, he likely will match up with Santi when the Vols go to their three guard set with Josiah stretching to the four. Even with either Chandler or Zeigler not on the floor, James provides a unique challenge for Wilkins as he is taller than him and can shoot over him. Wilkins provides a good bit of resistance both on the glass and for when Josiah does put the ball on the ground though, as at 220 pounds, he can at the very least match strength.

Should Longwood bring in someone who is a physical equal to JJJ, it would be either small forward Jesper Granlund or power forward/center Nate Lliteras. Again, these matchups favor Josiah heavily. Neither Granlund or Lliteras are athletic enough to prevent James from imposing his will when he puts the ball on the ground, nor are they strong enough to keep him off the glass on either end.

Lliteras plays just 14 minutes per game and shoots the ball well from deep. He’s ranked as Longwood’s best defender per dBPR.

On the flip-side of this is Jesper Granlund. Granlund plays a decent bit more than Lliteras at 20.5 minutes per game though it’s fair to say those minutes are nowhere near as effective. BPR hates Granlund, and so does basically every other defensive metric. Granlund ranks last on the team in both defensive efficiency rating (107.9) and total BPR (-11.7) for the Lancers. In fact, of 2,450 players charted on for BPR, Granlund ranks 1,913th. Not great, Bob!

Suffice to say, these matchups should Josiah salivating if he sees them. Tennessee will likely play a lot of small ball with their three guard lineup to defensively match up the best with Longwood’s guard-oriented offensive style, and to space out the Lancers on defense to create driving lanes.

The biggest key for Josiah, however, is staying out of foul trouble. It’s been the biggest thorn in his side all season. James ranks in the 1st percentile in personal fouls per game at 3.0. It keeps him off the court in crucial minutes down the stretch at a position the Vols aren’t deep at whatsoever.

To sum this up: Longwood’s matchups for James are either an undersized small forward, or two players who simply can’t athletically keep up. The biggest key is to stay on the floor because when he is, he’s as impactful and meaningful as anyone else for Tennessee. Expect Triple J to lead the way on both ends on Thursday and hopefully beyond for the Vols.