Tennessee guard Trae Golden (11) moves up court as Florida guard Kenny Boynton (1) gives chase during the Southeastern Conference tournament in March. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
KNOXVILLE — Trae Golden and Jordan McRae scored thousands of points in their Georgia high school basketball careers and added hundreds more as teammates with the AAU’s Atlanta Celtics.
Though they spent most of their freshman season at the University of Tennessee watching from the bench instead of putting the ball in the basket, neither rsophomore will have that luxury for the Volunteers this season.
Coach Cuonzo Martin’s first UT team will have to develop scoring from a seven-player group of young, inexperienced former role players who averaged 23 points per game combined last season.
Solving the mystery of where the points will come from is likely to linger well into fall practice, when Martin and his staff get their first live looks at the new-look Vols as a complete team. The Vols went through three-player individual workouts in April, but NCAA rules prohibit coaches from on-court contact with their players during the summer.
“I think the key with scoring is putting ourselves in the position to score baskets,” Martin said during Monday’s Southeastern Conference coaches’ teleconference. “That remains to be seen, so to speak, because we haven’t had a chance to go through an actual live practice and situations and see what guys can really do with the basketball making plays.
“Especially when you run a motion offense, you have to see what guys are able to read defenses and make decisions with the basketball.”
While Kenny Hall may be UT’s most reliable option for post scoring, McRae and Golden may have to join senior Cameron Tatum in picking up the slack from the perimeter. The 6-foot-6, 173-pound McRae has lit up the Rocky Top League so far. He scored 55 points Monday night to raise his five-game average to 47.6 points.
After becoming Liberty County High School’s all-time leading scorer, McRae scored just 18 total points as a UT freshman. He spent most of the season in the role of the opponent’s star player for the Vols’ scout team.
“I came in expecting to play a lot, actually,” McRae said last week. “I didn’t play much, but it turned out to be a good thing after all, just seeing Scotty [Hopson] go through the ups and downs of the season and [having] seniors tell me that this just how it goes sometimes, so just take it and learn from it.”
McRae, who served a midseason suspension last season, has plenty of skill offensively — Golden dubbed him a “scoring machine” Monday night — but also plenty of room to improve his maturity, defense and consistency.
“With Jordan,” Martin said, “it’s also having the confidence to play because he’s a guy that can really score the ball in a variety of ways: Get out in transition and push the ball, shoot 3s, great athleticism around the basket. With him, it’s just the mental part of the game and preparation side of the game, and I think if he’s able to get that down, he’ll be fine because he does have the ability to score the ball.”
Golden’s task is more difficult, as the 2010 Georgia Mr. Basketball now takes on the full-time point guard role after serving as Melvin Goins’ backup as a freshman. Golden, who scored more than 2,000 points at McEachern High School, is still transitioning from primarily a scorer to directing an offense.
“[The transition] went on and off last year,” Golden said Monday after his Rocky Top League team remained unbeaten heading into tonight’s championship game. “Sometimes I’d get in and I’d get comfortable, but ... I really didn’t get that full grasp of it. It’s not necessarily being the loudest guy or anything, it’s just making sure everybody feels comfortable with you and everybody can relate to you and make sure they want to play with you.”
In addition to watching video of NBA point guards Derrick Rose and Baron Davis this offseason, Golden has adopted some off-court preparation methods from Tobias Harris, his best friend and former teammate who went 19th in the NBA draft last week. The difficult physical workouts, Golden said, have improved his mental toughness.
“He’s a guy that I think has really improved,” Martin said. “His body’s gotten a lot better, his confidence is an all-time high right now, so I think it’s just a matter of him maintaining that level of confidence. I think he’ll be fine because he’s also one of those guys who scored a lot of points in high school, so he does have the ability to score the ball.”
Golden credited his confidence to his hard work. He still must mold his game to Martin’s offensive system but feels he’s ready to handle his new challenge and run the team.
“When you work hard,” he said, “I think all the confidence comes with you because you put in the work off the court, so when you get on the court you know that you deserve to do good — you expect to do get.
“Coach Martin, in one of our first meetings, told us that everybody who sits on the bench wants to play and wants to be in that limelight. Then when you get thrown in there, you’re going to be ready for it. I told myself I want to be ready for it and be ready for any challenge the SEC and NCAA can throw at me.”
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...