KNOXVILLE — Tennessee basketball coaches want Skylar McBee to play like a senior.
In his first two years in the program, playing for former coach Bruce Pearl, McBee, a 6-3 shooting guard, was used pretty much as a catch-and-shoot specialist. Last season, under Pearl’s replacement, Cuonzo Martin, McBee’s role increased. His minutes soared from 392 to 760, his scoring average more than doubled, he earned 12 starts after having never started, and he finally showed how good a shooter he really is, knocking down nearly 40 percent of his 3 pointers as opposed to 31 percent his freshman season and 32 as a sophomore.
This year, more is expected.
“They key is shooting the ball at a high percentage in tough situations,” Martin said. “We’d like to see Skylar coming off screens, maybe with only an inch of space, and be able to get that shot off. [But] he knows he still has to fight for his job, that there’s some tough competition for it. We expect him to respond.”
Assistant coach Kent Williams thinks a change is mindset will help McBee.
“We’ve talked to him about taking a little bit more ownership, understanding how important he is to the team,” Williams said. “Sometimes he’s willing to take a back seat and let other guys do their thing. We want him to realize that when he’s hitting 3s, how much more of a dangerous team we become.
“Really, between him and Trae Golden, how many 3-point shooters do we have? If he’s hitting 3s, it helps Jarnell (Stokes), Jeronne (Maymon) and Kenny (Hall) inside. It helps open up driving lanes for guys like Trae, Josh (Richardson) and Jordan (McRae). People are worried that you’re hitting shots, so do a little bit more. Don’t let them take you away so easy.”
It’s one of the ironies of basketball that by one player becoming a bit more selfish, it benefits his team. McBee understands the logic.
“I definitely know they want made shots,” McBee said. “They look for me to do that. I’ve got to be as automatic on open shots as possible.”
McBee’s definition of automatic? “The goal is 40 percent (from 3-point range) overall,” he said. “But those catch-and-shoot, open shots? Maybe in the 50- to 60-percent range.”
Last year, McBee’s name moved up a few pages in opposing team’s scouting reports. He led the Vols in 3-pointers made (63) and attempted (161) and knocked down at least three 3s in 11 games. That kind of stuff will get you noticed, as McBee quickly realized.
“All of a sudden, guys started flying out at me, jumping at the shot,” he said.
Williams was a prolific scorer during his college career at Southern Illinois, and he’s about the same physical dimensions as McBee. He’s well qualified to impart wisdom on the art of maximizing offensive opportunity.
“We all know Skylar can know down shots,” Williams said. “What I’ve been talking to him about is that when teams take away your 3, don’t let that take away your whole game. You’ve got to do a better job of getting open, setting your cuts up by faking one way and going the other, utilize the shot fake more and shoot a one-dribble pull-up.
“Anything you can do to get separation.”
McBee has proven that he’s deadly when he can create some space. Tennessee fans won’t soon forget his game-clinching 3 against No. 1 Kansas during his freshman year. McBee flashed a ball fake, jumped up and coolly drained the shot. But those moments were few and far between his first two seasons.
“My role was a little bit smaller earlier in my career with coach Pearl’s staff,” McBee said. “Unless it’s catch and shoot, we’re going to look at other options on offense. This year it’s going to be a little bit different, my role’s going to be a little bit bigger.
“The coaches are going to do whatever they think is best to win games. And that’s what I want to do, too. If that means a bigger role, OK. If that means a smaller role, OK. Whatever I need to do to help us win.”