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Rick Barnes breaks down the quick development of Tobe Awaka

Tennessee has struck gold for a second time in New York.

Duke v Tennessee Photo by Lance King/Getty Images

It wasn’t that long ago that we first heard the name Tobe Awaka. Pretty late in the going, Tennessee grabbed a commitment and a signature from a largely unknown name out of New York. Tennessee did the same thing the year before with his AAU teammate, Zakai Zeigler.

It would appear that Rick Barnes and his staff have hit another homerun.

Nothing was expected from Awaka in year one. It was widely assumed that he would take his redshirt year and hope to be ready at some point down the road, but that’s now how things went. Barnes couldn’t keep him off the floor, as Awaka showed pretty quickly that he had an elite ability to rebound the basketball.

By December, the should-be high school senior had found minutes playing big-time college basketball. He’s been growing and developing quickly ever since.

“Well he’s a much different player right now than he was,” Barnes said this week. “I mean, his confidence is totally different. And Tobe was a player that, no one’s ever ran a play for him (or) tried to play through him.”

That seemed to change late in the year as Tennessee really ramped up his minutes and got him more involved on the offensive end. It was taken to another level this summer, as Awaka played with Team USA’s U19 team. We saw more rebounding there, along with an offensive surge.

“Tobe’s rebounding, it is just a great talent,” Barnes continued. “It’s something that he has an unbelievable passion for. He’s got great instincts for it, but he’s also gotten better in so many (ways). There’s not an area that he hasn’t improved in. I think what he did with USA Basketball is a big confidence booster to him. And, again, I just think he’s got an incredible future ahead in basketball for himself because he works so hard, I mean, it really matters to him.”

Awaka averaged over 11 points per game for team USA, bringing down ten rebounds per contest. The 6-8, 250 pound power forward scored 14 points in three different games, and 15 points once. He connected on 60 percent of his shots from the field.

Now back with Tennessee, Barnes is looking to unlock new areas of Awaka’s game.

“He’s being asked to do some things we didn’t ask him to do a year ago, but we’re asking him to do more and be more of a force on both ends,” Barnes said. “We think he can shot block if he wants to. It’s in his mindset, because he’s so quick getting to the offensive boards, he gotta be that quick, getting off the ground to go block shots. And then offensively, we think if he’ll get himself off the ground as quick as he can, again, going to offensive rebounds, you gotta be able to do that with ball in his hand too.”

Awaka will split time in Tennessee’s frontcourt this year with Jonas Aidoo. There’s no doubt that the two will play together plenty, but you get the sense that this group is built to play a little smaller than Barnes has played in the past. Dalton Knecht, Jahmai Mashack and Josiah-Jordan James offer some versatility potential at the four, and it’s going to be interesting to see how that dynamic develops in the early season.

However, it’s clear that the staff is extremely high on Awaka, as they should be. Even with Olivier Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic on the roster, Awaka was averaging 13-18 minutes down the stretch last season. With Chris Ledlum out of the picture, that number should easily move to 20+ this season.

Tennessee basketball is set to scrimmage Michigan State at the end of this month, then take on Lenoir-Rhyne in another exhibition game on Halloween night. The Volunteers will officially open the regular season with Tennessee Tech on November 6th at 6:30 p.m. ET.