Martin looking for playmakers as season nears tip-off

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (release) -- This time of year, basketball coaches around the country talk about the importance of finding shooters. Cuonzo Martin is more concerned with his Tennessee squad identifying “makers.”

“Every team in the nation has guys who aren’t afraid to take shots,” Martin said. “I’m interested in winning ballgames, and teams that are able to compete for championships have multiple guys capable of making shots on a consistent basis. It spreads out defenses, creates more space for your offense and prevents teams from doubling down on your big men.”

The Vols enter Martin’s second season on Rocky Top boasting a deep and talented stable of big men. Returning All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon and SEC All-Freshman Team performer Jarnell Stokes receive most of the headlines, but senior forward Kenny Hall has earned praise from Martin for making significant strides in his offensive development during the offseason. And sophomore center Yemi Makanjuola continues to develop his offensive skills set as well.

Versatile redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous adds another wrinkle for the Vols down low. At 6-5, Chievous has shown a propensity in practice to create mismatches on the block.

Nonetheless, whether or not opposing teams choose to clog the paint defensively this year hinges on Tennessee’s “shot-makers” keeping them honest.

Senior guard Skylar McBee has improved his 3-point shooting percentage every year – firing at a .391 clip from long range a season ago. And junior point guard Trae Golden shot .388 from beyond the arc while leading the Vols in scoring last year (13.6 ppg).

Other guards vying to join Martin’s “Makers Club,” include juniors Jordan McRae and D’Montre Edwards, sophomore Josh Richardson and freshman Armani Moore.

“All of those guys have it within them, I truly believe that,” Martin said. “It’s a matter of building confidence. And the only way you can build that confidence is by getting thousands of shots up each week. It’s more than just practice; it’s getting in the gym on their own and putting in the time.”

The mid-range shot is among the team’s focus areas. Tennessee’s practices this preseason have included a new “Celtic Shooting” drill in which players sprint from short-corner to wing to elbow on alternating sides of the court, attempting shots on the move at each location. The drill is competitive, as student assistant coaches track precisely how long it takes each player to make 20 shots.

The drill strategically takes place at the end of each practice, forcing players to overcome their fatigue to make shots.

Tuesday’s "Emphasis of the Day" – daily midcourt talking points spearheaded by Martin prior to each practice – centered on thinking and dreaming big.

If you’ve never had a God-sized dream that scared you half to death, then you haven’t really come to life. If you’ve never been overwhelmed by the impossibility of your plans, then your God is too small. If your vision isn’t perplexingly impossible, then you need to expand the radiuses of your prayer circles.

While discussing Tuesday’s emphasis with the team at midcourt, Martin drove home the edict that he not only wanted his players to dream big, but he wanted them to believe that those dreams are attainable.

Martin also shared Monday’s emphasis via Twitter (@CuonzoMartin) just before practice began Tuesday. Monday’s focus dealt with respect:

My desire is that the people who know me the best respect me the most. Success is not measured by how many people I coach or how many games we win; success is living life with such authentic integrity that those who know me the best actually respect me the most.

During a media availability before practice Tuesday, some of the Vols were asked about the degree of difficulty of preseason practice under coach Cuonzo Martin.

“We’re going at it every day and just trying to get better,” senior Skylar McBee said. “It takes hard work. We’re getting our bodies in shape for the season. So I definitely think (preseason camp) lives up to the hype of being pretty tough.”

Sophomore power forward Jarnell Stokes enrolled in January last season, so this is his first time experiencing preseason workouts at the collegiate level. He said that joining the team mid-year as a freshman added pressure that going through preseason practice should eliminate this time around.

“I think there was definitely a little pressure in my whole situation (last season),” Stokes said. “But I think all my teammates and coach Martin helped me through the whole process as far as walking me through plays, not putting too much stress on me, and they weren’t too tough on me when I missed assignments. This year they expect me to know most of the stuff.”

Tennessee fans are eager to see how a full dose of preseason camp – as well as a summer stint with the gold-medal-winning USA Basketball U18 National Team – pays dividends for Stokes on the court in his sophomore campaign.

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