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Front Page - Friday, June 30, 2017

Redshirt season helps Johnson improve his game

Vol wing Jalen Johnson is finding success in Summer League play after sitting out last season. - Jerry Denham | The Ledger

Jalen Johnson’s first season on Tennessee’s basketball team didn’t go as planned. Now, he’s better for it.

The 6-foot-5 wing from Durham, North Carolina, arrived on campus last fall barely 170 pounds and competing for minutes with the likes of Robert Hubbs III, who led the Vols in scoring (13.7) and minutes (31.6) as a senior last season.

Johnson never got on the court and took a redshirt season.

“From a competitors’ standpoint,” Johnson says, “it was kind of tough because you want to be out there with the team, just to be a teammate and having fun and competing every night.”

Still, Johnson made the most of 2016-17. He honed his game, worked on defense and, most important, got bigger and stronger.

You see a difference in Johnson in this year’s Pilot Rocky Top Summer League at Catholic High School. He says he’s up to 195 pounds “on a good day” and more prepared to handle the strength he’ll see in SEC basketball.

“When I was lighter, if I was driving to the basket and a guy came and bumped me off, I’d fly off more,” Johnson adds. “Now, I feel like I’m more adept at taking that first blow and playing through it.”

With Hubbs gone, Johnson finds himself in the mix for a spot at either wing position – the traditional shooting guard and small forward positions are interchangeable in UT’s system – along with sophomore Jordan Bowden, junior Admiral Schofield and incoming freshman Yves Pons.

The highest-rated player of the 2016 class, Johnson was the No. 167 prospect in the nation, the No. 32 small forward and the No. 4 recruit in North Carolina as a senior at Wesleyan Christian Academy. During his junior year, Johnson averaged 12 points and six rebounds as Wesleyan Christian won a Class 3A state championship and finished the year No. 21 in USA TODAY’s “Super 25” national rankings.

UT coach Rick Barnes often cited Johnson’s upside during the redshirt season. Now is the chance for Johnson to show it.

“I’m just trying to take it day by day,” Johnson says. “I’m not trying to make any promises.”

Defense will be crucial in Johnson’s bid for a starting job or playing time. Barnes made it clear to him.

“I was talking to Coach Barnes,” Johnson explains, “and he really wants me to work on my rebounding and defense. He wants me to be more of a two-way player and not try to do too much on offense, just work on the defensive standpoint and affecting the game that way and with rebounds.”

With the three-week Rocky Top League ending this week, the Vols are preparing for an August trip to Europe for several exhibition games. Preparation includes 10 practices.

“The 10 practices will help us jell with each other,” Johnson says, “and I think when we get to Europe and play some of those games, I feel it will kind of give us a test to see where we stand right now and see what we need to work on as a team, and when we come back here, obviously, we’ll work on those points.”

Until then, Johnson and most of his UT teammates are showcasing their offensive skills – and not necessarily defense – in the Rocky Top Summer League.

UT signee Chris Darrington, a 6-1 junior guard from Vincennes (Indiana) University, was the No. 1 overall pick in the Rocky Top Draft.

Five of the first six picks were UT players, with the 6-3 Bowden chosen second, the 6-4 Schofield third, 6-5 sophomore forward Grant Williams fifth and 6-1 sophomore guard Jordan Bone sixth. Kyle Alexander, UT’s 6-10 junior forward, also is playing in the Rocky Top League.

Through two games, Schofield was leading the league in scoring (37 points), while Darrington was averaging 25 and Bone 20.5.

Two Vols are out for this year’s Rocky Top League: 6-0 sophomore point guard Lamonte Turner (shoulder) and 6-7 redshirt freshman John Fulkerson (torn labrum, left shoulder). Turner is out until the end of summer, and Fulkerson is out indefinitely.

Also, out is 6-0 guard James Daniel III, a graduate transfer from Howard University. He’s recovering from an ankle injury that caused him to miss all but two games at Howard last year.

Here’s the Ledger’s look at Daniel and UT’s other five scholarship newcomers on the 2017-18 roster (all except Daniel and Pons are playing in the Rocky Top League):

James Daniel III

Graduate transfer guard, 6-0, 175 pounds, Hampton, Virginia/Phoebus High/Howard University

Daniel, who led the nation’s Division I scorers two seasons ago at Howard (27.1 ppg), says he wanted to play in the Rocky Top League, but was held out to allow his ankle more time to heal. He plans to be 100 percent by August with a goal of playing for the Vols during their European trip. He made official visits to DePaul and Ohio State before his official visit to UT. He enrolled in summer school June 3.

Last season, Daniel was first diagnosed with a high ankle sprain, but later found to have a chipped bone in his ankle. In his only two games, Daniel scored 24 against Florida A&M and 10 against Columbia.

As a junior, Daniel scored 30 or more points in nine games and shot 38.8 percent from the floor and 33.2 percent from 3-point range. He was the player of the year in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and was an honorable mention All-American.

Daniel averaged 21.5 points, 2.4 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during his career at Howard and finished as the school’s career scoring leader (1,933 points).

“James gives us not only offensive production but toughness and experience as well,” Barnes told UTsports.com after he was signed.

“He recognized that our program has a lot of positive momentum and it means a lot to us that this was an important factor for him. He has really distinguished himself individually, and now wants to have an impact on ‘team’ success. Adding James to our roster is significant because it gives us some really good depth in our backcourt and the potential for some potent offense.”

Chris Darrington

Junior guard, 6-1, 175 pounds, Toledo, Ohio/Scott High/Vincennes (Indiana) University

Darrington, a first-team NJCAA All-American in two seasons at Vincennes, poured in 26 points in his Rocky Top debut when he hit 8 of 14 shots from the floor, 3 of 7 from 3-point range and 7 of 10 foul shots.

Last season, Darrington averaged 20.7 points and 5.1 assists and was the nation’s only junior college player averaging more than 20 points while playing in 35 or more games. He chose UT over Memphis, Toledo, Colorado and Pittsburgh coming out of junior college.

As a freshman at Vincennes, Darrington played a shooting guard or wing’s role, but he was moved to point guard last season and helped Vincennes post a 32-3 record. He shot 43.1 from 3-point range.

Darrington averaged 23.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 4.0 steals as a senior at Scott High in Toledo.

“Chris brings two qualities we were looking for: confidence and the ability to score,’’ Barnes told UTsports.com. “Chris’ experience at Vincennes was valuable because he has developed an appreciation for what goes into winning. A lot of guys can score, but not many can do so and win. He has been very well coached, and we expect him to come into our program with a great foundation.”

Zach Kent

Freshman forward, 6-10, 235 pounds, Magnolia, Delaware/Blair Academy (New Jersey).

Kent matches Kyle Alexander as the tallest Vol on the roster and will bolster the size-lacking frontcourt of the 6-5 Williams and 6-7 Fulkerson. Kent signed with the Vols last November.

He’s rated the nation’s No. 204 overall prospect, No. 17 center and No. 3 player from Delaware by 247Sports composite.

Before spending a year at Blair Academy, Kent attended a prep school, St. Andrew’s School in Middleton, Delaware, and averaged 17 points and nine rebounds in 2015-16.

“Zach obviously adds some size and length to our frontcourt, but he’ll also elevate our overall skill level with his ability to pass and shoot the ball, as well as his basketball IQ,” Barnes told UTsports.com last November.

“He’s got a solid inside game and is developing an ability to score with his back to the basket. He’s a tough, competitive kid. Playing under Coach (Joe) Mantegna at Blair Academy this season will enhance his development even more.”

Derrick Walker

Freshman forward, 6-7, 245 pounds, Kansas City, Missouri/Sunrise Christian Academy

Walker visited Tennessee Jan. 2-4 and committed that weekend. At the time, he was listed by 247Sports at 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, which made him the heaviest player on UT’s roster and the third tallest behind Alexander and Kent.

Walker said on opening night of the Rocky Top League he reported to Tennessee out of shape and was being mentored by Williams and Schofield in the process of getting his body game ready.

Last season, Walker averaged 14 points and seven rebounds at Sunshine Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas, a program that produced former Oklahoma star Buddy Hield. Walker previously attended Raytown Senior High in Raytown, Missouri, where he also played wide receiver in football.

He was originally a member of the 2016 recruiting class, but last summer opted to reclassify back to the 2017 class and attend a post-graduate season at Sunrise Christian.

Walker is the nation’s No. 258 overall prospect, the No. 65 power forward and No. 3 prospect in Missouri by 247Sports composite.

“Derrick is going to blend nicely into our team due to his combination of size, strength and toughness,” Barnes told UTsports.com. “We’re also excited about his basketball IQ and the fact that he’s a vocal defender, a good rebounder and an excellent ball handler and passer for a player of his size.

“So, there are a lot of signs that point to him being able to help us immediately. His next challenge is to get himself into great shape so that he can make the kind of impact we believe he’s capable of.”

Yves Pons

Freshman wing, 6-6, 210 pounds, Fuveau, France/INSEP, Paris, France

Pons, a four-star prospect by 247 Sports composite, signed in April and spent the summer playing with the French team in preparation for the 2017 FIBU U18 European Championships.

He’s the first player from France to play basketball for Tennessee and was the No. 112 overall prospect in the class of 2017, the No. 22 small forward and the top French prospect, according to 247 Sports composite.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Pons attended the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education Academy in Paris, which has produced notable basketball talents such as Tony Parker, Boris Diaw and Ronny Turiaf.

Pons, who committed to UT in February, chose the Vols over Florida and Virginia Tech. With his athleticism and explosiveness, Pons has been projected by NBA scouts to develop into a small forward or power forward, but will play wing for the Vols. He was considered one of the top 10 international prospects at the 2016 FIBU U17 World Championships in Spain.

“We’re very excited about the addition of Yves because he fits the culture and mentality of our program as a person, student and athlete,” Barnes told UTsports.com.

“We’re all very thankful for the trust that he and his wonderful family back in France have placed in us.”

Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.