In the week since former Memphis guard Antonio Barton announced he was transferring to Tennessee, the 6-2 senior has inevitably been compared to the point guard he replaces in Knoxville, Trae Golden.
Statistical comparisons are perhaps unfair to make, given the much smaller sample size Barton produced last season while playing 13.6 minutes fewer per game than Golden, who announced last month he was transferring. But in statistics tracked by Synergy Sports, Barton is rated in the very good category on offense, generating 0.909 points per possession. That placed him in the 68th percentile among all Division I players. Golden scored 0.886 points per possession, putting him in the good category and the 63rd percentile.
Defensively, the difference is more pronounced, though again, Golden was on the floor much longer than Barton, and fatigue could have been a factor. But it’s no secret that Golden has been a poor defensive player over the years, even against players from mid-major teams. In winning an NIT game in Knoxville in 2013, Middle Tennessee State’s strategy late in the game was to send guard Bruce Massey—who finished with 20 point and scored the go-ahead basket with 1:30 to play—right at Golden. When Tennessee lost at Oakland in 2011, Golden surrendered the bulk of guard Reggie Hamilton’s 35 points.
Once again leaning on Synergy statistics, Golden is rated a below average defensive player, surrendering 0.959 points per possession, ranking him in the 21st percentile nationwide. Barton surrendered 0.844 points per possession, ranking him average, or in the 46th percentile.
Will Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin take an average defender or a below average defender? Every time. But in Barton’s case, the numbers aren’t necessarily a fair comparison.
A film breakdown of Barton’s defensive handiwork shows the energy he exerts as an on-ball defender. His pressure was a distraction and often forced offenses out of their comfort zone and rhythm.
Some may question why Barton played fewer minutes as his career progressed. The easy answer is that Memphis coach Josh Pastner had Joe Jackson at his disposal, and in 2012-13, Jackson put together his best year, leading the Tigers in several statistical categories, including scoring, assists, steals, 3-point percentage and free-throws attempted and earning first-team All-Conference USA honors.
Pastner also had two taller, stronger guards—6-foot-4 Chris Crawford and 6-3 Geron Johnson—who last season blocked Barton from getting more time at the two spot.
Barton’s low assist totals have also come into question. He averaged just 1.5 assists in 95 career games.
Given all the above facts and figures, is Barton a capable replacement for Golden? There are two ways to answer that.
First of all, the Vols have no choice. If not for Barton’s decision to leave Memphis as a junior with immediate eligibility because he’s graduating this summer, Tennessee would be faced with going into a season with an untested freshmen, Darius Thompson of Murfreesboro Blackman High School, at the point, perhaps supported by players—Jordan McRae, Armani Moore, Josh Richardson—who are better suited at other positions.
Barton shows up in Knoxville battle tested.
Answer No. 2: In Martin’s system, a point guard doesn’t necessarily have to be a playmaker or assist producer. He needs to be a leader and call plays, make adjustments to the Vols’ motion offense based on what he sees, and guard the other team’s point. Golden never could master the art of movement within the offense, he wasn’t a leader, vocal or otherwise, and he had trouble staying in front of his man.
Barton is tough and a natural leader. His shooting ability—Barton has made 100 of 240 career 3-pointers, an excellent 42 percent—will make it hard for defenses to double down on Jeronne Maymon or Jarnell Stokes. And he’ll give the Vols an honest effort on D, game after game.
Under NCAA rules, Martin can’t comment on Barton until he walks in the door for his first class, but if someone were to ask him whether he would trade Golden for Barton even up, his answer might well be yes.