KNOXVILLE — If Josiah-Jordan James is going to become the basketball player he’s fully capable of being, first he’ll have to transform into a player he’s never been.
Tennessee’s 6-foot-6, 208-pound freshman guard never has been one to go looking for his shot. Passing has come more naturally to him, and that ability to assist others coupled with his stature helped make him a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school.
What hasn’t come natural is a desire to seek scoring opportunities for himself.
That’s been a work in progress with a lot of give and take so far this season.
He has reached double digits in points in a half twice with the Volunteers, scoring 11 before halftime in the 57-41 loss to Memphis on Dec. 14 and again in Saturday’s 78-66 loss to LSU to open Southeastern Conference play, with both games at Thompson-Boling Arena. His shot is still a work in progress, too, and because defenses don’t quite respect it, he has had some open looks from 3-point range and taken advantage at times, making a trio of 3-pointers in each of those double-digit halves.
Stretches like those are when James has shown flashes of having the sort of breakout performance the Vols (8-5), who have lost four of their past five games, need from him on the offensive end of the court if they’re going to be successful.
Tennessee freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James
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He appeared to have settled in some at a combo guard position prior to senior Lamonte Turner’s decision to have season-ending shoulder surgery, but the loss of the Vols’ primary ball-handler initially thrust James into that role. In his first game as the top point guard on Dec. 28 against Wisconsin, James had all sorts of struggles figuring out when to shoot and when to pass, and he finished 1-for-6 from the field for four points with five assists and three rebounds in the blowout loss.
Tennessee coach Rick Barnes has made it clear to James that he wants him to look for more chances to score, although he also wants to make sure the shots James takes aren’t forced.
“Some of his shots, we have to still understand the game situation and all that where we don’t come unraveled,” Barnes said after the loss to LSU. “You can’t turn it over, and that’s what young guys have to learn and we need him to have a scoring mentality. We’ve told him over and over, we need him to have a scoring mentality. This year, every time he’s gotten himself in trouble, it’s because he’s turned down shots. Every single time.
“So he has to shoot it. He works hard enough at it, and he’s a good shooter.”
As one of four freshmen who make up almost half of the number of scholarship players on the roster, James isn’t alone in trying to adjust his mindset. With a week between the 68-48 loss to Wisconsin and the league opener, the Vols had time to regroup, and Barnes was pleased with some of the progress he saw.
“We’ve told the guys, if you’re open in our offense, you have to shoot it,” Barnes said Saturday. “We shot so much better than we did last game, when we were tentative. I didn’t think we were that today. I thought we got behind a little bit and we started looking around a little bit. But I didn’t think our young guys did that. I thought our freshmen were really locked in.”
The Vols made nine 3-pointers in the first half against LSU — James was joined by midseason enrollee Santiago Vescovi in making three apiece — to trail 38-37 at the break. The problem was that Tennessee couldn’t get anything going inside the line, shooting just 5-for-18 on 2-point attempts in the first half. Those struggles persisted in the second half, with the Vols finishing the game 13-for-26 from 3-point range but just 11-for-34 from the field otherwise.
Some of the struggles have resulted from players, including James, trying to develop their shots and recognize good scoring opportunities.
However, as the Vols prepare for another conference matchup — Tuesday’s 7 p.m. EST game at Missouri (8-5, 0-1) will be televised by the SEC Network — James needs to keep looking for his shot more than any other Tennessee player specifically because he can be a bit of a matchup nightmare.
“It’s been challenging. As time has gone on and the circumstances we’re under — losing Lamonte — it’s definitely an adjustment, but I feel like I’m doing a good job with it,” James said. “I feel like everything happens for a reason. This is only helping my game out more, and me scoring the ball is allowing me to be a better playmaker, because you have to be a scorer before you can be a playmaker because you have to make the defense stay honest.
“Coach is always telling me that because I always look to pass that if I play like that, I won’t be a good passer. I have to be a scorer first and make the defense stay true to you, then everything will open up.”
And for a natural passer, that’s exactly what you want.
Contact Gene Henley at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.