By STEVE MEGARGEE, AP Sports Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — For a guy whose game is built on speed, Tennessee’s Jordan Bone has required plenty of patience in his slow but steady emergence as one of the Southeastern Conference’s top point guards.
The 6-foot-3 junior from Nashville is playing the best basketball of his career as the third-ranked Volunteers (11-1) carry a seven-game winning streak into its SEC opener Saturday against Georgia (8-4).
Over his last three games, Bone has averaged 19.3 points, 8.7 assists and only 1.3 turnovers. He has helped Tennessee lead the nation in assist-turnover ratio (1.81) and rank second in assists per game (21.2).
“I value passing the ball more than anything, honestly,” Bone said. “But it’s not just passing the ball. It’s making my teammates’ job easier, just understanding how each guy gets to his spot, where each guy’s comfortable.”
First Bone had to find his own comfort level.
Bone was a freshman starter who immediately discovered how much Barnes demands from his point guards. That’s a lesson each of Barnes’ point guards has eventually learned.
“He sees the game from a point guard’s perspective, he knows how important having a point guard is,” said former NBA guard T.J. Ford, who was the national player of the year while helping Barnes’ Texas team reach the Final Four in 2003. “That’s the position he relies on the most because of the leadership that’s provided.”
Barnes has said that Bone has elite speed on par with the quickness Ford showed in college. But it took time for Bone to adapt to Barnes’ approach.
Bone spent his first two seasons facing criticism he’d never encountered before.
“I talked to my teammates and I even talked to other coaches, (asking), ‘Man, why is he so hard on me?'” Bone said. “Because I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t coached that way in high school. I was just a young guy who didn’t understand what was going on.”
One guy he consulted was his oldest brother.
Josh Bone played at Tennessee from 2009-11 and now is a video coordinator at Tennessee State. Although the two brothers are 10 years apart in age, they’re close friends.
“He would call me and say how hard practice was and how coach would say he couldn’t get anything right,” Josh Bone said. “I just told him just keep fighting, (that) everyone goes through something, remain positive, keep a positive energy through it all. Sometimes he was very frustrated, but I told him it would all work out.”
Josh Bone says his brother’s increased confidence shows how Barnes’ lessons paid off.
“It’s molded him,” Josh Bone said. “It was the best thing he could have ever gone through – those first two years – just getting him adjusted to being a leader. When he came in, he wasn’t a leader. They were molding him into becoming one.”
Bone has 14.3 points and 6.5 assists per game, nearly double his 2017-18 averages of 7.3 and 3.5. His 3.3 assist-turnover ratio has him on pace to shatter Tennessee’s single-season record of 2.821, set by Jon Higgins in 2002-03.
“We wanted him to really have more of a grasp of our team and how his position needs to make each guy on the floor better in what they do,” Barnes said. “He has done a good job of that. Now it’s consistency. Can he do it over the course of a conference season?”
Tennessee is relying on Bone more than ever due to its lack of backcourt depth.
James Daniel III exhausted his eligibility after backing up Bone last season. Lamonte’ Turner, the 2018 SEC co-sixth man of the year, has appeared in just three games due to a shoulder injury that’s kept him from playing since Nov. 28.
Yet Tennessee hasn’t missed a beat because Bone has been so effective in meeting Barnes’ expectations.
“I think there’s a sense of maturity I have now as opposed to being a freshman or sophomore,” Bone said. “I’m just understanding he wants what’s best for us. (I’m) actually listening to what he’s telling us instead of taking things personally and not quite getting the message.”
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