Loss of walk-on point guard Lopez will hurt Tennessee

It’s not often when a college basketball coach calls a season-ending injury to walk-on a “huge blow to our team,” but Tennessee’s Donnie Tyndall meant it when he said that about Brandon Lopez, who tore the ACL in his right knee in a pickup game over the weekend.

Lopez, a 6-1 senior who had played in just 31 games in his career, had impressed Tyndall and his staff, from the first day of skills workouts in June. After a couple of sessions, Tyndall was talking about playing Lopez 10-12 minutes a game in the 2014-15 season. “You can trust him,” Tyndall said then. “He can come in, play four or five minutes a half, maybe have a couple of assists, not turn it over. He’s going to play.”

As time went on, and Lopez continued to impress, his projected playing time increased. Then came the injury.

“It’s a shame,” Tyndall said. “The kid had worked hard all his career, and then he fell into an opportunity where we had a need, and he could help us fill it. I feel for the kid.”

If, as Tyndall said in a press release announcing that Lopez would miss the season, the senior had a chance to start, where does that leave the point guard position?

If the season started tomorrow, the job might fall to 6-4 junior college transfer Kevin Punter, who’s a two-guard by trade. But other Division I coaches who recruited Punter have referred to his “throwback” game, which means he’s adept at getting into the lane and making things happen. In the past, that meant a midrange pull-up or getting all the way to the basket, but now it could mean he’ll have to facilitate offense for teammates.

“He’s a guy that’s capable of averaging nine to 10 points, three and a half assists, maybe a steal and a half,” Tyndall said. “That would be good production.”

Another candidate is IUPUI transfer Ian Chiles, who is immediately eligible because he graduated in the spring. But Chiles has been set back with his own injury problems. He underwent surgery for a sports hernia and has only recently begun working out. Chiles is eager to prove he can play the point, but he’s been a combo guard his entire career and thus is used to looking for his own shot.

Chiles is not an SEC-level athlete with blow-by speed. In that league, a point guard has to either be crafty and an instinctive passer, or possess athleticism to get past the quick and usually long-armed defenders he’ll face.

Another point guard option for the Vols, for a few minutes, at least, is junior college transfer Devon Balkman. He’s versatile enough to play all three perimeter spots, and can even play the “mismatch four” spot in Tyndall’s offense. But he’s better suited as a wing scorer, not a set-up guy.

A new addition could also find himself in the mix: 6-1 freshman Braxton Bonds, who played at Christ Presbyterian Academy in Nashville and signed with Liberty. The three-star recruit actually showed up at Liberty in June, but left and was released from his scholarship. Bonds is the nephew of former MLB slugger Barry Bonds and played with a Tennessee recruiting target, small forward Braxton Blackwell, who is in the class of 2016. Bonds reportedly fielded offers from LSU, Middle Tennessee, Miami (Ohio) and others before deciding on Liberty. He’s considered a pass-first point guard, but he has some scoring skills and is also a willing defender.

Meanwhile, the Vols are in hot pursuit of Jawun Evans, a four-star recruit from Justin F. Kimball High School in Dallas. Evans, 6-0 and 180 pounds, has been rated by ESPN as the No. 10 point guard in his class. Rivals rates him the No. 32 player overall.

“Evans is a true point that has a great feel for the job of being a point guard,” said ESPN.com’s scouting report. “Attacks the rim and will not hesitate to advance the ball on the pass of dribble to apply immediate pressure to the defense. He will also give the post a good look and do not forget about him when posting up. He keeps constant pressure on the defense on the break and in the half-court set where he beats his man and gets in the lane at sometimes seemingly at will. Evans knows how to control the game and how to get the ball to his teammates where they can be successful.”

 






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