The No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers came into the season possessing a veteran backcourt. There were departures of Chris Darrington and James Daniel III, but the three remaining guards looked to build on their own success. The injury and absence of the reigning SEC Sixth Man of the Year, Lamonte Turner, has drastically changed that dynamic.
Turner was set to share point guard duties with Jordan Bone while rotating in a flexible backcourt that includes Jordan Bowden. After all, Turner has been tabbed as Tennessee’s third scoring option. The guard has a history of coming up with big shots in crunch time. He has also shown the ability to explode for points. The junior has eclipsed the 20-point mark five times in his career.
Despite missing that kind of production from the guard spot, the Vols have found something special in another junior.
Bone has made quite a statement in the 2018 portion of the current schedule. Before the season, the Nashville native was my prediction to be the team’s most improved player come season’s end. Bone is on pace to go beyond that claim.
The junior is averaging 14.3 points per game to go along with 6.5 APG. His assist-to-turnover ratio has been elevated from 2.9-1 last year to a current mark of 3.4-1. The 32 minutes he is averaging has allowed him to thrive in being the quarterback of Rick Barnes’ offense. The most impressive part of Bone’s game has been the ability to wait for his opportunities, whether it’s operating in transition or driving through the defense in a halfcourt set. The Ensworth product has elite speed and can pass as well as anyone in the league. With his reliable free throw shooting (84.2 percent), he could be a drive-and-foul machine if needed.
His attributes would ideally fit more into a system that is catered to the point guard position. An offense that pushes tempo and creates space would highlight his impressive quickness and ability to finish around the rim. Yet, despite operating in an offense that is predicated on working the ball inside-out and producing cuts and screens, Bone has steadily elevated his game to the point where he can shine with the likes of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield.
Williams and Schofield lead the SEC in scoring, respectively. Bone, the Vols’ third-leading scorer, sits at 14th. He is also third in APG and second only to Arkansas’ Jalen Harris in AST/TO.
Bone played heavily in rotation during his first two seasons on Rocky Top, hovering around 20 MPG. He averaged a shade over seven PPG for that duration. Some numbers were slightly elevated from freshmen to sophomore year, but the inflation that has happened so far in his junior year is something to behold. His points average has essentially doubled. He has gone from averaging 3.5 to 6.5 assists per game. While his 3-point shooting has taken a dive, the field goal percentage has risen over six percentage points (.454). More importantly, his AST/TO ratio continues to climb.
The past three performances have been simply amazing. Bone has combined for 58 points and 26 assists during that stretch. He has reached double-digit assist totals in three of the past six games and had nine against then No. 1 Gonzaga. His speed caused so many problems against Memphis that Penny Softaway’s backcourt was forced to play hack-a-Bone. The junior made 11-of-12 from the charity stripe that game as freshman star Tyler Harris fouled out in frustration.
As much as Tennessee has missed Turner’s shot-making ability, a new weapon has surfaced. Bone has elevated himself from being a rotational guard to one of the best point guards in the league. He is doing all of this while playing alongside two potential All-Americans and an offense that, in theory, should mask some of his attributes.
By being patient and steady, Bone has brilliantly learned how to sense when to push tempo and when to orchestrate Barnes’ halfcourt offense that pounds the opponent into submission.
If the first two months of the season are any indication, other backcourts in the SEC have their work cut out. The lightning-quick guard has evolved into the lead point guard for the No. 3 team in the nation and shows no signs of slowing down.
Tennessee opens SEC play on Jan. 5 against Georgia.