Tennessee basketball coach Cuonzo Martin will put a veteran team on the floor next season, but five newcomers will be asked to play a role. How much a role has yet to be determined, but, as three freshmen and a junior college transfer have already demonstrated in the Rocky Top summer league in Knoxville, they are capable of making contributions.
Here’s a quick look at each incoming player:
Robert Hubbs, 6-5, 180 FR, Dyer County High School, Newbern, Tenn.—A five-star recruit, Hubbs would figure to make an immediate impact, and he’s done nothing to disprove that theory during the Vols’ summer workouts. He’s been compared favorably to former Vol Scotty Hopson athletically, but with a better jump shot at this stage of his career.
“He’s a guy that that can jump out of the gym,” Martin said. “He’s a guy that can make shots—post up at his size, obviously a guy who can make plays off the bounce. A great feel for the game. You can tell his dad (an assistant coach at Dyer County) coached him over the years.
“He really understands the game and has that feel for it. He’s got good pace to his game and seems to be one of those guys that doesn’t get rattled in situations, keeps his poise and continues to play.”
Tennessee coaches are excited about Hubbs’ potential.
“There’s no telling how good he can get,” assistant coach Kent Williams said. “I’m not trying to put pressure on the kid, but he can shoot the basketball, and he’s athletic. That’s a very rare combination. And he’s a great kid that wants to learn. That in itself tells you a lot about him.”
Darius Thompson, 6-5, 180 FR, Blackman High School, Murfreesoboro, Tenn.—Thompson was recruited in the late signing period to be a backup point guard to Trae Golden, then probably inherited the starting job before he set foot on campus when Golden announced he was transferring. But after the Vols signed former Memphis guard Antonio Barton, who is transferring with immediate eligibility after he graduates in summer school, Thompson figures to be brought along slowly.
Then again, Thompson, whose father Lonnie is the head coach at Cumberland College, has already proven to be a quick study.
“The one thing with Darius is you can tell he’s been coached,” Williams said. “When you go through a drill, he understands what you’re trying to get out of it. And he actually shoots the ball better than I anticipated.”
Like Hubbs, Thompson is a bit on the lean side. It wouldn’t hurt either of them to add 20 pounds of muscle before the season starts.
A.J. Davis, 6-8, 200 FR, Buford High School, Buford, Ga.—Davis has already been compared to two Tennessee players, one past, one present.
“At 6-8, he can handle the ball and get to the rim,” Martin said. “He’s similar to Jeronne Maymon in that you can pick and pop and run him off ball screens. A.J. has been a guard so long, even at 6-8. He handles the ball, brings the ball up, make decisions with the ball.”
Said Williams, “A lot of the guys on the team in open gym kind of compare him to J.P. Prince, like a longer three/four wing. Not quite as athletic with the jumping ability as J.P. had, but just the versatility. He can maybe post up some smaller guards, and if he’s got a bigger four man on him, he can take them off the dribble. He can also make passes.”
Pops Ndiaye, 6-10, 250 JR, Indian Hills Community College, Ottuma, Iowa—Like Barton, Ndiaye fills a hole left by a player who transferred, Yemi Makanjuola. Like Makanjuola, Ndiaye is a native of Africa who started out playing soccer and came to basketball later in life.
Ndiaye’s development in junior college was slowed by injury, so the Vols’ are getting an unproven big man who will nevertheless have to provide some key reserve minutes.
“What we’re hoping for is a solid backup,” Williams said. “Give us some minutes when we need them. I think he’s got a little bit better feel for the game (than Makajuola) because he’s been around it more. Neither one of them are gonna go out and give you 20 (points). But he has more size.
“I’ve actually been impressed with how he’s been moving out there. I was a little worried about his movement. But he’s been fine.”
Antonio Barton, 6-2 180 SR, University of Memphis—Barton is the only Tennessee newcomer who isn’t playing in the Rocky Top League; he’s finishing up his undergraduate degree work at Memphis, which will allow him to transfer and play right away.
By many accounts, the Vols got the better end of the deal in essentially trading Golden for Barton. If all he brought were better defensive skills than the notoriously porous Golden, Martin would be happy. But Barton is also a career 41 percent 3-point shooter, and he’s not afraid to pull the trigger at crunch time.
Memphis insiders say Barton is a high-character, mature guy who just got caught up in a numbers game at Memphis. After the talented Joe Jackson learned how to get out of his own way and just play, he became a fixture at the point. And with Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, Memphis coach Josh Pastner has all the shooting guards he can use.
Barton would have stayed at Memphis had Jackson decided to enter the NBA Draft, but when Jackson opted to return, Barton knew he had to leave. He does so with no animosity on either side.
Barton won’t be missed at Memphis, but he’ll be huge for Tennessee, even though he’s not a traditional set-up man. Without a veteran point guard, the Vols could have struggled enough to miss out on a 2014 NCAA tournament bid, something many national college basketball pundits believe is in the cards next March, now that Barton has filled the hole left by Golden.