2019-20 Tennessee Basketball Preview: Defense

There are two previews available for the 2019-20 Tennessee basketball team on this here website. You’re reading the Defensive preview, which exclusively focuses on what each returning player brings to the team on the ball-stopping side, along with what newcomers can do for a rebuilding program. To read about Offense, click here. Onward! (This is all on one page since it’s shorter.)

RETURNERS

JORDAN BOWDEN

2018-19: 31 steals, 11 blocks, 1.6 DBPM, 0.88 DPIPM, 33.3% FG%, 44.1% eFG%, 70th-percentile on Synergy. Consistently a plus defender at Tennessee, though his status as Tennessee’s best defender is less consistent. Notable for owning Gonzaga’s offensive actions late in the game:

Less notable for being Tennessee’s single best closeout guy. Got unlucky in 2018-19 (opponents hit 38.3% of guarded C&S, 31.8% of opens) at times.

Good: Still doesn’t foul often, still a quietly good defender at the rim:

Still Tennessee’s best closeout defender.

His PIPM dropped some, but he’s never had a negative defensive rating through three seasons and a lot of his fall could be blamed on bad jump shot luck.

Bad: Not a ton? He’s an okay isolation defender that gets burned sometimes:

And, through his career, has struggled at times defending dribble handoffs.

This is not to say he’s terrible at either, just that these are his lone weak spots on an otherwise consistent resume.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: He’s not a terribly aggressive guy, but Bowden had one of the more unusual runs of steals I’ve seen in a long time: 12 straight games with at least one steal in 2018-19, but never more than two in any game. He just…is consistently there.

LAMONTE TURNER

2018-19: 35 steals, 3 blocks, 0.9 DBPM, 0.63 DPIPM, 33% FG%, 42.9% aFG%, 65th-percentile. Where Bowden is consistent, Turner can run extremely hot and cold. He can either be purely locked in (held Tyson Carter to 6 points on 9 shots in SECT) or locked in deep struggle (allowed Hassani Gravett, of all people, to go 4 of 6 from three). Turner’s highs, to my eyes, are higher – he destroyed Kentucky’s backcourt in the 71-52 win – but his lows are far lower.

Good: He’s Tennessee’s best pick-and-roll defender on the roster. Turner ranked in the 85th-percentile in 2018-19, per Synergy, in P&RBH defense. He was both good at forcing weak shots:

And at forcing ugly turnovers.

Considering he was in the 44th-percentile in this play type a year prior, you could see this as a small sample size thing, but it looks like he legitimately got better.

Bad: Where Bowden thrives at closeouts, Turner frequently leaves his man open to get off a good look; Auburn crushed him on these:

He’s also never been a good isolation defender and struggles to stay with more physical guards at the rim.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: It’s pretty likely that even if he does leave shooters open at the same rates, Turner won’t allow opposing players to shoot 43.1% from three in half-court offense. That should fall, but will it be because he got better at closeouts more frequently or because he’s luckier?

JOHN FULKERSON

2018-19: 18 steals, 25 blocks, 6.3 DBPM, 2.20 DPIPM, 32.4% FG%, 37.5% aFG%, 83rd-percentile. Those numbers are going to surprise some fans, but the problem with Fulkerson has never been his defense. Largely, the Pals Man stays with post players well, rebounds strongly, blocks shots, and forces turnovers. Those are all hallmarks of a quality option on defense, even if his offensive capabilities are largely lacking.

Good: Only Kyle Alexander had a higher Blocks/100 Possessions rating, and he played half of Alexander’s minutes.

Fulkerson’s work is never pretty, but it’s efficient for a reason; he really is solid at staying in front of most SEC big men and forcing tough misses. Per possession, he tied for Tennessee’s best post-up defense, though it’s obviously a small sample. Also generally fine at closing out on the perimeter.

Bad: In general, you don’t love the idea of John Fulkerson being forced to defend in isolation. He’s at his best working within a team context; singling him out is rarely going to work out, as evidenced by Will Rayman of Colgate immediately going at him 13 seconds after he’s subbed in.

Plus, Fulkerson has always struggled with foul trouble (6.2 fouls per 40 in 2018-19, highest among rotation players); it’s going to be tough to reconcile this while allowing him to stay strong defensively.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: Fulkerson, of all players, had the highest Steal% (2.4%) of any rotation player on Tennessee’s roster. Can this sustain itself? Likely not. But it’s time to give him a little more credit for being a solid defensive option.

JALEN JOHNSON

2018-19: 2 steals, 1 block, 0.1 DBPM, -1.52 DPIPM. Johnson, of the returnees, is easily Tennessee’s worst on-ball defender. Frequently, Johnson doesn’t seem to be able to stay in front of much of anyone; he’s poor at closeouts, despite not being asked to do much. Despite being a relatively conservative defender, he picked up 17 fouls in 151 minutes last year, which is above the national average. Alright, I promise there’s positives here.

Good: He’s lanky and can move somewhat? I guess? Here’s one of his two steals:

And his only block:

He left 56% of opponent catch-and-shoots open despite spending essentially all of his time on the court defending the perimeter. Not Great!

Bad: Well, he’s not good at closeouts at all.

Johnson has a high Synergy output entirely based on opponents hitting just 1 of their 8 guarded three-point attempts. (Small sample size.) I have him as defending *one* drive to the basket all season, and it was an and-one for Tennessee Tech.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: Well, he did force seven misses on those guarded attempts. If he learns to guard more threes, then positive plays like this:

Could reasonably become more common.

YVES PONS

2018-19: 9 steals, 15 blocks, 3.8 DBPM, 0.54 DPIPM. What you think about Yves Pons is likely determined by if you prefer process over results or results over process. Largely, Pons’ process isn’t bad – he guarded 67% of catch-and-shoots in 2018-19 and held opponents to a 6-of-26 hit rate at the rim – but his results were forgettable. Add it to his inability to force turnovers and a tendency to go invisible, and…well, you know what’s coming.

Good: I mean, he did guard 67% of threes attempted when he was the primary defender. It’s not Pons’ fault, necessary, that opponents hit an insane 43.9% of their threes against him and 34.2% against all other players when he had one of the better guarding splits on the team. Like, this is perfectly fine:

Pons also is a pretty good shot blocker, which is unsurprising as he can leap out of the gym.

Bad: There are times where it doesn’t seem like Pons knows where he’s supposed to be, which is, ah, not good.

It’s not as frequent as some fans may think, but it’s a clear sign that his defensive awareness still has quite the amount of room to grow. Also, he struggles with bad fouls that add to the frustration levels.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: It’s almost a certainty that his 3PT% allowed won’t be as bad as last year; studies have shown that it’s much more about preventing threes in the first place. If Pons remains good enough on closeouts like these:

The numbers will improve greatly.

NEWCOMERS

JOSIAH JAMES

It’s hard to tell too much about James, considering he hasn’t played a second against college-level competition yet. However: we can assume someone with his athletic range will factor greatly into Tennessee’s levels of defensive success. ESPN isn’t very high on his defense for now: “While he has tools that should eventually translate defensively, he needs to get serious about that end of the floor so he can be a two-way player of impact. He still stands up too much defending the ball, is undisciplined with his close-outs, and needs to be more alert on the help-side of the floor.” They also said this, though: “Defensively, he uses his length and reach to stay in front of the ball and has a good degree of future potential on that end with his physical profile and ability to cover the court.” Basically: the same as 99.9% of all freshmen. I’ll take it.

OLIVIER NKAMHOUA

Unlike James, a couple of Q&As and highlight videos lead me to believe Nkamhoua took defense seriously in high school. Here’s a highlight from a late 2018 Q&A: “I try to play very good defense every single day; I know if my offense is not working then I know my defense is where I’ll have it.” That’s an attitude Rick Barnes loves to have, and it will remind you of another unheralded high school recruit that just went to the NBA. Nkamhoua is long, rangy, and seems like a guy that can frustrate opponents if he’s as dialed in as he tells us.

DAVONTE GAINES/DREW PEMBER

Neither of these two will play very much, and neither should; both are too thin to propose any serious resistance to a player 6’4” or taller. Gaines doesn’t have many scouting reports out there, but he told 247 recently that he “takes real pride in defense,” which makes him a great fit for Tennessee, of course. Pember averaged three blocks a game last year in high school and Bearden experimented at times with putting him on opposing guards, but there’s a large gap from Tennessee 3A play to the SEC. Both need the weight room, badly.

UROS PLAVSIC

Euro Plastics has but two serious goals as a defender: block shots and get rebounds. When you are seven feet tall, these are the things you should be doing. Per 247, his teammates seem to like him (surprising!) and think he can be a good floor leader. Considering Kyle Alexander could be really, really good defensively, I’d keep my expectations low for Plastics as he transitions into the college game, but there’s a lot of potential here.

PROJECTION

Just like offense, this will look quite a bit different, too. Tennessee’s finished 150th, 55th, 6th, and 42nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in four Barnes seasons; I don’t think they’ll be setting a new low by any means, though. In fact, the more I look at the newcomers, the more I think this will be the better side of the ball. Tennessee returns one excellent perimeter defender, a hot-and-cold one with the capacity to be excellent, an underrated post defender, and a couple of potentially useful pieces. Nearly all of the newcomers have discussed their enjoyment of defense publicly; I think this is a great sign for their level of care to come. Consider this an educated wild guess: Tennessee finishes 35th in KenPom’s Adjusted Defense rankings for 2019-20.

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