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Rick Barnes talks development of Tobe Awaka

He’s been quite the surprise to this point.

Syndication: The Knoxville News-Sentinel Saul Young/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

Tobe Awaka, much like his former and current teammate Zakai Zeigler, came to Tennessee without much fanfare. Tennessee entered the mix quietly, thanks to some inside information from Zeigler, who played with Awaka in AAU ball.

St. Peters, Bryant, Bowling Green, Marist and Manhattan were a few of his offers before Rick Barnes made the call, and then things changed. Two weeks later, Awaka was on an official visit to Tennessee. Three days after that, he was committed to the Volunteers and considering reclassifying to the class of 2022.

Awaka signed with Tennessee in July, officially opting to reclassify and start his college career. Not much was expected from the 17 year old power forward, but he’s forced his way onto the floor thanks to his work in practice. Very quickly, Awaka appears set to become Rick Barnes latest success story.

“He is getting more patient with the ball,” Barnes said after the Georgia win. “He still has got to play quicker. Tobe has really good hands. He is strong, as you guys know. He is a big 17-year-old kid right now that is growing up in front of us, is what he is. He takes it really serious. You watch it after practice. Everything he does, he does it with a purpose.”

If you could create a Tennessee post player in a lab, it would look a lot like Tobe Awaka. The 6-8, 250 pound power forward is strong, by all accounts works extremely hard, and is completely locked in as a rebounder. That’s exactly how you find minutes on a Rick Barnes coached team.

As a senior in high school, Awaka averaged 19 and 13 on his way to being named the New York Gatorade player of the year. As the season pushes on, we continue to see flashes of that player emerge at the college level.

Awaka has put up big rebounding numbers in limited minutes — 11 against Austin Peay, eight against Maryland, and six against South Carolina and Mississippi State. On Wednesday against Georgia, Awaka was three of three shots from the field, hitting four free throws to score ten points.

“He wants to be good,” Barnes continued. “He is confident. He thinks that every rebound goes up, he should have it. He is willing to go try and go get it. It is going to be fun. It is fun coaching a guy like that. A lot like what we talk about with Z’s DNA, just a competitive player. It is in his, too. They come out of a great AAU program. Played for good high school coaches. Those guys, they are going to compete.”

Awaka appears to be yet another win for Barnes’ staff at Tennessee. They got in early, gave him his first high-profile offer, and they’re already seeing results. It’s very similar to the Zeigler recruitment, and frankly the Grant Williams setup from several years ago. Can Awaka follow a similar trajectory? That remains to be seen, but he’s off to a really nice start.