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Rick Barnes talks DJ Jefferson after redshirt season

Checking in on an interesting future piece.

Tennessee v Auburn Photo by Michael Chang/Getty Images

It’s a season of change for Tennessee basketball. The Volunteers are likely to see parts of their core roster exit the program, and Rick Barnes has already added three reinforcements to the roster. Jordan Gainey, Dalton Knecht and Chris Ledlum have all joined Tennessee out of the portal. Knecht and Ledlum should have big roles next season, which likely keeps DJ Jefferson out of the rotation for another season.

Jefferson took a redshirt this past season, which was seemingly always the plan. A preseason injury that forced him to miss some time early on made that decision a little easier.

Tennessee got in on Jefferson late after he was released from his signature with Tulsa, following a coaching change. His recruitment took off after a big showing at the Iverson Classic in April of 2022. Recruiting services took notice, and Jefferson started shooting up rankings. By the time he signed with Tennessee, Jefferson had become a four-star prospect, ranking just outside of the top 100 overall, per the 247Sports Composite Rankings.

Still, the odds of playing early in Knoxville weren’t great, but he knew that from the jump.

“He was great,” Barnes said, speaking of Jefferson’s redshirt season. “DJ has been awesome. He is just getting started in this game. When we started with him, we know — and we know — that he has got terrific athletic ability. He is skilled. There are so many other parts of the game that all players not just him have to learn. His progress really the last month and a half of the season, you could see him starting to turn the corner.”

Jefferson, a 6-5, 207 pound small forward, is an explosive athlete. He could be seen before games this season finishing off the ‘one fly, we all fly’ drill, putting that athleticism on display. As a senior in high school, Jefferson averaged 16.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 3.0 steals per game.

Now at the college level, Jefferson has a chance to develop without being forced into action right off the bat. Barnes has a pretty good track record in this area — Yves Pons and Jahmai Mashack come to mind immediately. Jefferson has a chance to follow a similar path.

“You could see it starting to come together for him,” Barnes said. “As he continues to mature like all these guys, we believe in this group of guys. We also know that a lot of things happened this year that we couldn’t have possibly thought that could have happened. That is why it is so important that every one of these guys know how important they are and how much we are going to need them. They have to be ready when their number is called.”

Jefferson still has a difficult path to the rotation this coming year. Tennessee will return Zakai Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi and Jahmai Mashack, while adding Freddie Dilione, Jordan Gainey and Dalton Knecht. Cracking some of those backcourt minutes this year could prove to be difficult, but looking ahead to 2024-25, Jefferson would be looking at three years of eligibility remaining with a pretty clear path for big minutes in front of him. At the very least, we should get a look at him in the early season non-conference tune-ups next season.