The obviously good news: today Chris Lofton affirmed the overwhelming thought that he wasn't going to test the NBA waters after his junior season, and will return to Knoxville for one final season in orange.
The curiously interesting news: Bruce Pearl continues to surprise and demand your trust. In hearing Pearl speak about Lofton's decision and the future, in both the News-Sentinel piece and the AP story, you come across several revealing facts. First, Pearl is a player's coach - it was the head man who urged Lofton to even feel out the draft process, to see where he would be projected to fall. Now, even Phil Fulmer has been on record as saying that if a player is a projected Top 15 NFL pick, he has to think about going pro. But I'm not sure if Fulmer has ever gone this far with a player, telling him to feel it out when that player appears to have had little interest in doing so. In this case, of course, it works out great - Lofton knows where he stands, and he's still coming back to Knoxville. But I thought it was another interesting piece of the Bruce Pearl puzzle.
Second, and more important to the orange horizon, Stu Jackson tells Lofton that he needs to work on his ball handling and point guard skills. The thought (and the reality) in today's NBA is that there's only one spot for sub-6'5" guards on the floor, and that needs to be running the point. NBA teams that put 4 players who stand over 6'5" in the starting lineup and on the floor at all times aren't the exception, they're the rule. In the NBA in 2007, when you think "two-guard", which is Lofton's current position as a Vol, you're left with mental images of guys who also happen to all fall under the category of "guard-forward". The line between SG and SF in the NBA is getting almost nonexistent.
I even did a little research of my own for this one. Chris Lofton is 6'2". The number of NBA teams who start a player under 6'5" at the shooting guard spot: the Sixers with Andre Miller, the Bulls with Ben Gordon, the 6'4" D-Wade, Dahntay Jones in Memphis, Iverson when Steve Blake runs the point in Denver, Derek Fisher when he's not running the point in Utah, Monte Ellis at Golden State...and that's it. 7 out of 30 teams. Less than 1/4 of the teams in the NBA employ a true shooting guard. Why do you think Gilbert Arenas is playing point guard?
If Chris Lofton is going to play in the NBA, more than likely he's going to need a point guard skill set.
He doesn't have to be Steve Nash or Jason Kidd. I'm a firm believer that one of the reasons Nash comes across so well today is that no one does what he does anymore. 10-15 years ago, teams had point guards that actually ran the point - Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, Dennis Johnson, John Stockton, Gary Payton, Tim Hardaway, Mugsy Bouges, Mark Jackson, Kevin Johnson, the list goes on and on. And all of those guys, with the exception of the diminuitive Mugsy and the short shorts of John Stockton, were still capable of putting up 20 a night. But that wasn't their primary role, even for Magic and Isaiah. Their job was to run the entire offense.
Today, the only two guys left who run the entire offense - Nash and Kidd - are past and present MVP candidates. Are they any better point guards or basketball players than anyone on that list from the 90s? No. But they get so much more credit, because many of the guys filling the "point guard" role today - Iverson, Arenas, Baron Davis, the list goes on - are doing so from a score-first mentality.
Chris Lofton will never be John Stockton, on any level. But if he wants to play in the NBA, he has to do more than shoot threes. JJ Redick, as a rookie, played 14 minutes a game and averaged 6 points. And that's not terrible.
But Lofton has more potential upside than Redick. Lofton showed signs of becoming a more complete basketball player last year, both with his defense and his driving skills. However, it's simple fact that if he wants significant minutes and opportunities on the next level, in this day and age, he's going to have to have some point guard in him.
You probably knew all that already. Here's what you may not know:
Bruce Pearl is going to help him.
Pearl talked openly today about moving Jordan Howell away from the backup point guard role, and giving those minutes to...Chris Lofton.
So, among others, the million dollar question is...will this make Tennessee better while it's making Chris Lofton better?
Ramar Smith is clearly the first option, and there's no debate about that. What Pearl is suggesting is that when Smith is on the bench, Lofton is running the point. And I don't doubt that Lofton can pull it off. I'm just curious to see it in action. And sometimes, I find myself in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" category.
The larger question deals with the rotation as a whole. I'm just as interested to see if Pearl decides to put Wayne Chism and Duke Crews on the floor at the same time. I'm also interested to see what JP Prince - all 6'8" of him - will bring to the table. And don't look now, but our old friend Tyler Smith may be coming full circle to Knoxville.
The bottom line: I trust Bruce Pearl. He's done nothing to abuse that trust. So when he says that Chris Lofton is the new backup point guard, and Jordan Howell is the new Lee Humphrey (his comparison, not mine)...I believe him. If it helps Chris Lofton move up the draft board next year, then that's great. Moreover, I certainly don't believe Pearl would seriously do something like this, or anything for that matter, that wasn't in the best interest of Tennessee Basketball. Once again, the fact that we're having a serious basketball conversation in late April shows that Pearl can be trusted.
We keep finding new layers to this Bruce Pearl story. And no matter how things turn out...the ride will continue to be interesting.