Tennessee basketball: a 2020-21 preview

After the longest year in human history, we have returned. Basketball is around the corner, amazingly enough. In a normal year, you would have seen this preview at least three weeks ago, if not further back, and you would already know a bit about the 2020-21 Tennessee basketball team by way of them having played two or three games. That’s not a huge sample size, and yet: it is larger than zero games, which is what we’re going off of right now.

All we can do is analyze what may or may not be there. What we know is that Tennessee returns roughly 70% of production from last year’s roster, including the Defensive Player of the Year and All-SEC John Fulkerson. They add two five-star recruits to the roster, along with suddenly-forgotten four-star Corey Walker. Understandably, this particular Tennessee roster has created the most anticipated Tennessee basketball season in years, perhaps even more anticipated than the final Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield run. 

Of course, it’s worth remembering how far we’ve all come in this year alone. When I last wrote about Tennessee basketball on this site, it was about a game that didn’t actually end up happening: the SEC second-round fixture against Alabama. The night before, Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test forced the NBA to postpone their season for over four months, and a similar postponement simply wasn’t possible for college basketball. It felt like a matter of time building up to the Thursday afternoon announcement that the NCAA Tournament was done.

Here we are, eight months and 18 days since Tennessee last played basketball. It’s easy to forget that the last Tennessee road game played was an out-of-nowhere 81-73 win over SEC champion Kentucky. (Don’t check the score of the Auburn home finale played four days later, the last sporting event I attended in 2020.) Before we get into 2020-21’s expectations, let’s go over a brief reminder of what went down in 2019-20:

  • Tennessee started 5-0, then 7-1, with wins over Washington and VCU. By the end of the season, these wins looked pretty forgettable, but at the time of each game, they were really important. With a six-man rotation and a makeshift roster, Tennessee flew to Toronto and dismantled Top 25 Washington for a full 40 minutes; in a tournament in Florida, they battled VCU to the wire and got a Lamonte Turner buzzer-beater to pull off a huge win. At the time, both wins looked to be a key part of a Tennessee NCAA Tournament resume, alongside a close loss to future ACC champion Florida State. Washington and VCU would finish their seasons at 15-17 and 18-13, nowhere near the NCAA Tournament. Still, Tennessee’s defense looked genuinely great, holding their first six opponents and eight of their first nine to 0.87 PPP or lower offensively.
  • Tennessee lost four out of their next five games, and in the only win, Lamonte Turner’s career ended. Turner battled shoulder issues during his shortened senior season and shot horribly, but once we all found out how bad the pain was, it became a lot more understandable. Suddenly, Tennessee had nothing resembling a true point guard at all, and offense became an excruciating thing to watch. Tennessee posted four games of 0.8 points per possession or lower offensively, their worst bad-game rate since 2011-12, the first Cuonzo season.
  • Enter Santiago Vescovi and an erratic SEC run. Last year’s SEC was very bad, and I don’t think that any member of the conference would’ve progressed past the Sweet Sixteen. It makes sense that Tennessee wouldn’t have found any real consistency. That said, they were simply more exciting by way of Vescovi’s deep range, fascinating passes, and extreme offensive volatility. In one three-game sample, Vescovi went from scoring 20 points to 7 to 14, and in his first game in a Tennessee uniform, he committed nine turnovers. For a half-season freshman, consistency wasn’t his thing, but you’d hope he’ll find more of that in a full season.
  • Some good wins, some close good losses, and some horrific performances. For a team with so little returning from the previous season, Tennessee was always going to have consistency issues. But even they might have been shocked by how inconsistent they were. Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric measures a team’s performance on a 0-to-100 scale. In the same season, Tennessee posted six 95-or-higher rated performances alongside three games rated a 21 or lower. Meaning: in certain games, Tennessee looked like a top 15 team; in others, they looked like a bottom-half Conference USA squad. Not once in the final five games did Tennessee hold their opponent below a point per possession offensively. In the season’s final week, Tennessee posted wins over Florida and Kentucky, two NCAA Tournament teams…and then promptly lost at home by 22 points to Auburn, the least-good of the three.

Using that as a refresher, we can be confident of some things heading into 2020-21. Tennessee brings back a lot of talent from last year’s roster and a lot of young players with high levels of potential. They’ll get a full season to grow together, and even in a strange pandemic season, hopes are high. Preseason statistics models are a little lower on Tennessee, simply because their 2019-20 was kind of disappointing, finishing 68th on KenPom and 61st on Torvik, both the lowest of any school ranked in either site’s 2020-21 Top 20. National experts seem to generally have the Vols somewhere between 8th and 14th, which feels fair. Either way, fans are within their right to expect great things from this group and great things from the $5 million man heading the operation. They’ll have a lot of questions to resolve from here to March, but the nice thing about having as much talent as Tennessee has is an extended timeline to figure out the answers to those questions.

if you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

The NBA is back. What’s the most interesting thing about each team?

After what feels like years in the wilderness, basketball is returning. It is coming up from the ground…belting out of every speaker…on every television, basketball is coming back. Okay, that’s a bit far, I’ll admit, but as a writer that mostly writes about basketball and its statistics, these last four months without it have been a bit tiring. I’ve missed my good friend, and I’m glad they’re back in town.

Below, there’s a ton of words about the NBA restart. The headline sums it up: what’s the most interesting thing about each team? This is not what’s the best player on each team, but rather: what’s the most interesting, unique, weird thing about each team? It helps if it’s statistically-based, which just about everything here is. I’ve included GIFs for each entry, all 22 of them, and I plan on writing deeper about all 22 teams at various points of the restart. For now, consider this a primer to a whole lot of content coming forward soon. Thanks for hanging with me, friends.

On this page are the 1-4 seeds as they stand in the Eastern Conference. To skip ahead, you can click below:

Eastern Conference

1. Milwaukee Bucks (53-12): Khris Middleton’s midrange game

While most of the attention deservedly goes to the best player in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the second-best player on the Bucks has been one of the league’s 15 best players for a couple of years now. Khris Middleton plays a distinct second banana to the star Giannis, but the Bucks wouldn’t be the Bucks without him. This is maybe Middleton’s finest outing yet: a 21.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG season where he’s shooting 54.7% from two and 41.8% from three. Add that onto his well-deserved reputation as a stout defender, and you can understand the hype for a player who’d be the best player on over half the teams in the league.

What helps Middleton stand out? The fact that, at age 28, he’s quietly become a premier mid-range shooter in a league that’s moved away from the mid-range as a whole. Middleton is shooting an astounding 52.3% on mid-range attempts this season, second only to Chris Paul among players with at least three mid-range attempts per game. (The top five: Paul, Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, C.J. McCollum, and D’Angelo Russell.) Like Paul, what stands out about Middleton is his capability of making them in nearly any situation. He’s made 31 of 52 fadeaway two-point attempts:

20 of 42 step-backs:

And 59 of 99 pull-up twos, many of them coming out of pick-and-roll sets like this one:

While Giannis is likely a guarantee to post 30 and 10 most nights in the bubble, the Bucks’ fortunes will swing based on how well Middleton can provide a reliable second option to Giannis. In losses this season, Middleton has made just 34.7% of his mid-range attempts and has posted 47.1% 2PT/37.1% 3PT shooting splits, versus 56.5% 2PT/43.7% 3PT in wins. For the Bucks to fulfill their work over the first five months of this season, it’s on Middleton to be the same top 15 player he’s been for two years now.

2. Toronto Raptors (46-18): How many corner threes can a team allow?

The Toronto Raptors have been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season. After Kawhi Leonard’s departure in free agency for Los Angeles, they had to try and make their roster still work in a somewhat-diminished Eastern Conference. At the beginning of the season, the East was largely thought to be a two-team race between Milwaukee and Philadelphia, with Boston and Toronto fighting it out for third/fourth. Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto have held up their end of the bargain; Philadelphia hasn’t. It’s been because of Toronto’s great defense, ranking second-best by Defensive Rating because they force lots of turnovers and have done a great job making life difficult for opponents at the rim.

That said, they’ve got a really baffling thing going on with their three-point defense. No team has forced a lower opposing three-point percentage than Toronto, but no team has allowed a higher percentage of corner three-point attempts. At least with Milwaukee’s large amount of threes allowed, 80.3% of them have been from the wings or the point – less statistically advantageous shots on the whole. No team has come close to the Raps in terms of corner threes allowed; the distance from Toronto’s 30.9% of all three-point attempts to second-place Houston (25.6%) is nearly the same as the distance from Houston to 16th-place Orlando (20.2%).

This hasn’t borne itself out in terms of a win/loss split as much; opponents make 33.3% of their threes in Toronto’s wins versus 34.9% in losses. Still, there’s a huge opportunity available for good-shooting opponents. In particular, the Raps are 0-2 against current 4 seed Miami, who got tons of open looks in both games against Toronto:

I don’t see this affecting Toronto much in the first round, but the second – where the Raps could draw any of Boston (12th in 3PT%), Miami (1st), Indiana (13th), or Philadelphia (14th) – could be the first time a problem presents itself.

3. Boston Celtics (43-21): Robert Williams and his stocks

As a loose Weird Celtics Twitter follower – shoutout to the Riffs Man – I have become quite familiar with one Robert Williams, AKA Time Lord. Williams has been a bit player for the Celtics for a couple of years now, a guy who probably would’ve had a better career had he been born in 1987 and not 1997. (6’8″, 237 pound centers that can’t shoot past ten feet…well, they simply don’t fit the 2020 model.) Williams is fairly efficient the 10-15 minutes a game he sees the floor, but he commits six fouls per 100 possessions, makes a ton of avoidable mistakes, and can never stay on for very long.

It is with all those qualifiers that I have to note he’s the single most fascinating swing player on this roster to me. When Williams gets in the game, he’s been a defensive dynamo: 3 steals and 4.2 blocks per 100 possessions, a +4.4 Defensive Box-Plus Minus, the best steal rate for any frontcourt player in the league, and the third-best block rate among players getting 10+ minutes per game. It is really, really hard to find big guys that can do this:

And this:

Before the pandemic hit, Williams was getting anywhere from 10 to 16 minutes a game, and in his final four games, he committed six fouls in 54 minutes played. Far from ideal. BUT: he also blocked seven shots, got three steals, and frequently made plays that made you wonder why he doesn’t play more often.

Of all the players I could pick to be interested in, the Celtics’ 10th/11th man is certainly an odd choice. But he’s a really bizarre odd choice, isn’t he?

4. Miami Heat (41-24): Can Duncan Robinson’s threes make up for Duncan Robinson’s defense?

If you’ve known me for any length of time, you probably know that I lend my fan support to a pair of college basketball programs: Tennessee and Michigan. I graduated from Tennessee so that’s an obvious pick, but I also like Michigan because my dad went there and, to be honest, they were more interesting for most of my youth. Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that I watched probably 80% of Duncan Robinson’s games during his time at Michigan. He was a fantastic shooter, especially in spot-up situations, and was a very good bench player for the Wolverines. At no point during Duncan Robinson’s time at Michigan did I think he’d have any future in the NBA, much less a future as an NBA starter on one of the league’s best teams.

Well, here we are! Robinson started in 60 of Miami’s first 65 games, gets more minutes per game than everyone not named Bam Adebayo or Jimmy Butler, and has somehow became the most lethal spot-up shooter in the entire freaking league.

Robinson hits 44.8% of his threes on 8.4 attempts per game, which is crazy high. Only James Harden and Buddy Hield have made more threes this season, and Robinson’s attempted considerably fewer threes than both players. It’s unreal how great of a shooter he is, especially when every opponent knows he’s Miami’s main threat from downtown:

Robinson really does have a future in the NBA, regardless of if he can play on both sides of the ball. A slight issue with his immediate future: he isn’t a positive force yet on defense. Robinson’s -0.9 Defensive EPM ranks in the 30th percentile of the league, and Heat opponents have worked to get him in negative situations. Evan Fournier blows by Robinson pretty easily for a reverse layup here:

Robinson isn’t outrageously bad on defense, but opponents shoot 6.1% better than their normal average against him from two. He’s done a solid enough job sticking with guys on the perimeter, but it’ll be on Erik Spoelstra and the Heat to keep him out of matchups where he’s at an athletic disadvantage.