Sunday, April 20, 2014 · 2:22 p.m.
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Tennessee guard Jordan McRae will not rest on his laurels.

Coming off a year during which he earned first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors and serious player-of-the-year consideration, McRae is taking his game all the way back to the basics this summer. Though national basketball media considered him among the most improved players in Division I last season after he increased his scoring average from 8.6 as a sophomore to 15.7, McRae is taking his responsibility as a senior leader to heart. And his leadership starts with his own game.

“After every season it’s like you start over,” McRae said last week while taking part in the Vols’ Statewide Hoops Outreach Tour (SHOT) at Cleveland High School. “I’m starting over with everything. Working on my handles, working on my shot, my defense.

“Just continually working on my game, every day, just trying to get better. Watching film, seeing things I didn’t do right last year. I’m definitely not satisfied at all. I’m just trying to keep working and building.”

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin has already seen improvement from McRae during the limit time he has to work with his team in the offseason.

“Just watching him in workouts, it seems like he’s moving a lot faster,” Martin said. “It’s amazing what confidence can do for you. He’s always been a talented guy, but now his confidence has really helped his overall game.

“He’s fluid in what he does now. He’s catching and shooting the ball, attacking on closeouts. Fluid, that’s the best word I can use to describe him.”

Even as exacting a critic as Martin was hard pressed to find too many weaknesses in McRae’s came after a junior season in which he finished in the top 10 in the SEC in five statistics: scoring (fourth), field-goal percentage (8th, .423), free-throw percentage (ninth, .711), 3-pointers per game (ninth, 1.8) and minutes per game (fourth, 33.6).

“I think everything is there on the offensive side of the ball,” Martin said. “Defensively, he’s capable of taking that next step. More than anything, getting out in the passing lanes and getting steals. He has that ability. He did a good job rebounding for his size. But he needs to get his steals up.”

Just as Martin says, McRae has the tools to be a tenacious defender. He’s got NBA-level athleticism, which gives him closeout ability. His quickness and near 7-foot wingspan allow him to blanket defenders one on one, and, as Martin said, should make him a terror in passing lanes, getting deflections and steals. Last season he was second on the team with 29 blocked shots, a high number for a guard and the most by a backcourt player in the SEC.

Some NBA Draft analysts speculated that McRae might consider giving up his final season of eligibility after the junior season he put together, but he wisely chose to stay in school. Keeping weight on his 6-foot-5 frame is difficult—during the season he’s hard pressed to stay at 195 pounds—so another year in Tennessee strength coach Nic Christopher’s program can only help. And if he shows NBA scouts he can defend the way Martin wants him to, McRae will get his chance at the next level.

For now, the NBA is a thought that rarely crosses McRae’s mind.

“The best thing you can do to help your draft stock out is just win,” he said. “Right now the only thing on my mind—not just for myself but for the team— is I want to leave my mark here as somebody who played on an NCAA (tournament) team. That’s my whole focus, just trying to win. The NBA will come when it comes.”

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