Yves Pons’ decision to return for senior season means big things for Tennessee basketball

Tennessee’s Yves Pons decided to return for his senior season on Monday, the final day for players to determine whether to remain in the NBA Draft.

Here is what Pons’ return means for Tennessee:

Top-tier post duo

Pons and John Fulkerson formed a strong post partnership last season, averaging a combined 24.5 points and 11.3 rebounds per game.

They should be in store for another big season together as seniors. 

Fulkerson proved to be one of the best big men in the SEC late in the season. He averaged 13.7 points per game last season and 15.1 points per game in SEC play. The second-team All-SEC pick scored 18.3 points per game in the final 10 games last season.

Pons is an ideal complement to Fulkerson, who works deep in the post typically. Pons can knock down mid-range jump shots and step out for 3-pointers. That duo is great for a Tennessee team that will have a lot of guard options to pair with the experience in the post, which Sacred Heart graduate transfer E.J. Anosike bolsters.

Depth and defense

Fulkerson and Pons played more than 30 minutes per game last season. So did Jordan Bowden and Santiago Vescovi, and Josiah-Jordan James played 29.9 per game.

When Tennessee won a share of the SEC regular-season title in 2017-18, Grant Williams led the Vols with 28.8 minutes per game. Ten players registered at least 8.4 minutes per game for that squad, and this Tennessee team appears to have similar depth.

Tennessee returns Davonte Gaines, James and Vescovi. It will add Oregon transfer Victor Bailey Jr. and five-star freshmen Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer to the backcourt.

Anosike joins with Fulkerson and Pons to form the core of Tennessee’s interior presence. Either Olivier Nkamhoua or Uros Plavsic seems most likely to take a leap into a consistent role as a backup post player, but UT also could play small with its guard depth and Pons.

That depth will allow Tennessee to play defense the way coach Rick Barnes wants to, which UT did during that SEC title campaign.

Pons buys development time

Tennessee didn’t get much from the first-year trio of Drew Pember, Nkamhoua and Plavsic. 

Pons’ return paired with the addition of Anosike gives Tennessee time to develop the young big men that it did not have last season, when the trio was pushed into immediate action.

The group did have flashes – Nkamhoua early in SEC play and Plavsic at Mississippi State after he was ruled eligible in the middle of the season but never showed consistency. Nkamhoua and Plavsic tailed off late in the season, playing only 8.8% of available minutes in the final five games assuming a two-big lineup. Pember did not play in the final four while in concussion protocol.  

But the Vols now have the chance to develop that group and incoming freshman Corey Walker Jr. with Pons back. It also isn’t hard to imagine Tennessee choosing to redshirt a big man this season with the depth the Vols have.

Mike Wilson covers University of Tennessee athletics. Email him at michael.wilson@knoxnews.com and follow him on Twitter @ByMikeWilson. If you enjoy Mike’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. 

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