Tennessee basketball has become a pipeline to the NBA under head coach Rick Barnes, but without a slam dunk first-rounder, can the 2021-22 roster keep that trend alive?

Rick Barnes’ Volunteers have averaged 22 wins over the past five seasons and have had five players selected over the last three NBA Drafts. To say Tennessee is producing next-level pro talent would be an understatement. However, in looking through the 2021-22 version of Tennessee basketball, you do not see the typical no-brainer pro that has lined Rick Barnes’ rosters in the past.

In this piece, we will take a look through the roster and see which players are the transcendent talents, the players who will end up in the mock drafts and on real NBA draft boards in their own time.

Underrated freshman NBA Draft prospects
—Player profiles: Johni Broome | Hayden Brown
SUBSCRIBE to Heat Check CBB Premium for exclusive content!

Tier 1: May as well start saying your goodbyes, folks.

Kennedy Chandler, G, Freshman 6’0″, 175 lbs.

Chandler enters the Tennessee basketball program after ending his high school career as the nation’s No. 1 overall point guard. He will step in on day one and be given the keys to the Lambo. Chandler is a quick-on-quick, pass-first point guard. As a senior Chandler led Bel Aire (Kan.) Sunrise Christian to a 21-4 record on the way to the GEICO Nationals Finals. He averaged 14.8 points, 6.4 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 3.3 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. Chandler was named the Kansas State Player of the Year by Maxpreps and was a member of the McDonald’s All-American team.  

Chandler is on the smaller side, so he will have to show that he can play through that this season. However, over the previous two draft classes, the SEC has had a pair of guards get picked as early entry draftees. What did those two —Auburn’s Sharife Cooper and Alabama’s Kira Lewis — both have? Speed, toughness, and high IQ.

“Kennedy was one of our primary targets for a long time,” said Rick Barnes of Chandler. “To us, his elite speed, athleticism, defense, and basketball IQ separated him from every other point guard in America, but it was his character, work ethic, and toughness that really made him a perfect fit for our program.”

Tier 2: I’m not saying it’ll be this year, but I’m not not saying it.

Justin Powell, G, Sophomore – 6’6″, 185 lbs.

Powell is a big-time shooter, possibly one of the very best marksmen in the country. As a freshman at Auburn last season, Powell averaged 11.7 points per game while shooting 44.2 percent from beyond the arc. Powell also has exceptional court vision and both the ball skills and the court savvy to act as a secondary initiator beside Kennedy Chandler. Last season, Powell was one of only five players in Division I to shoot over 44 percent from three while also averaging at least 4.5 assists per game. Even more impressive, Powell’s six rebounds per game put him in a class of his own, as he was the only player in the country to attain those stats.

As for his draft stock, the NBA has put a premium on shooting. Let’s take a look at Justin Powell’s season last year side by side with former Gonzaga star and 2021 NBA Draft first rounder Corey Kispert’s season stats:

  • Kispert: 18.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 1.8 apg, 44.0% 3P, 22.7 USG%, 25.3 PER
  • Powell: 11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 44.2% 3P, 21.2 USG%, 20.0 PER

Kispert played last season at 21 years old, while Powell was just 19. Interestingly enough, Powell also played primarily out of position at the point guard, as Sharife Cooper was awaiting NCAA decision for eligibility. A quick start to the season for Powell could generate a lot of buzz.

“Justin is a savvy guard who plays very unselfishly and makes his teammates better,” said Rick Barnes. “He’s got really good size and can play multiple guard spots. He is also a proven shooter and knows how to move well without the ball in his hands.”

Josiah-Jordan James, G, Junior — 6’6″, 207 lbs.

James is one of the premier defensive players in all of Division I basketball. The former five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American uses his athleticism, high basketball IQ and anticipation, and his 6-9 wingspan to be a terror — both on the ball and in the passing lanes. Last season he was one of six payers in the country (and the only one in the SEC) to have a Defensive Box Plus/Minus over 5.2 and a Defensive Rating below 89. Even further, James joined NBA draftee Herb Jones as one of only three players in the SEC who averaged over one steal and one block per game last season.

Along with the athletic prowess, the unique nature of James also lies in his playmaking ability. If you add in a baseline of two assists with those defensive per-game averages above, only 13 players in the SEC have had such numbers over the last 30 years. Some of the names joining James on that list are eight NBA draft picks: Joakim Noah, Grant Williams, Chuck Hayes, Corliss Williamson, Walter McCarty, Vincent Yarborough, Garrett Temple, and Herb Jones.

James is going to have to show he can knock down a jump shot – career 33.5-percent from 3 on 3.3 attempts per game – and play with more of an alpha mentality; however, he is right on the cusp as he does NBA things on the floor. Once things fully click, his stock could take off.

Tier 3: It won’t be this year, but he’ll have his day soon.

Jonas Aidoo, C, Freshman – 7’0″, 230 lbs.

Aidoo’s rise to relevance last season was both rapid and considerable. When COVID-19 was hitting in April, he was unranked by any service, and he carried no P5 offers. Aidoo ended his high school season ranked as a five-star prospect and the No. 21 overall player in his class. The seven-footer has excellent length, moves in a unique way for a guy his size, and his hands and touch are both elite.

While we can put Aidoo’s name firmly on the NBA radar, he certainly has some work he needs to do. He is a late bloomer physically, so his core strength still needs time, but once his confidence hits, he will take off. In his first year, Aidoo should back up senior John Fulkerson and freshman Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. Aidoo’s shot blocking ability is a good bet to translate immediately, as is his ability to knock down shots from the perimeter. Give him some time to develop as Rick Barnes puts the rest of the puzzle together, and all the pieces are in place for Aidoo to be a pro talent.

“Jonas is a really skilled player,” said Tennessee basketball assistant coach Justin Gainey. “He’s a 7-foot skilled player. He can play with his back to the basket. He can play facing the basket, he can handle it a bit and can do a bit of everything. I think the biggest area of his game we’re going to need to improve is the physical nature of his game.”

Tier 4: Not quite there yet, but keep an eye on these names.

Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, F, Freshman — 6’10”, 235 lbs.
Quentin Diboundje, G, Freshman — 6’5″, 205 lbs.

This year’s roster may not have a surefire first-rounder, but if Chandler, Powell, and James all put in strong seasons, the tradition of Tennessee basketball producing NBA talent may be alive and well in Knoxville.