Tyler Smith doesn’t keep Vols in suspense long, will return
By: By DUNCAN MANSFIELD, Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE (AP) — The suspense didn’t last long.
Tennessee’s sensational forward Tyler Smith thanked his family, his coaches, his teammates and Volunteer fans. The 21-year-old, 6-7 sophomore from Pulaski said his college experience has been “everything it is supposed to be” and that he’s wanted to play in the NBA “for as long as I can remember.”
But after weighing his options with his mom and coach Bruce Pearl, he’d made up his mind.
“I have come to the conclusion that I want to be a Volunteer next year,” he said Thursday, just seconds into a news conference on his future.
Smith, who averaged 13.5 points a game and led the 31-win Volunteers in rebounds and assists last season, is coming back for his junior year.
With at least 38 underclassmen declaring for the NBA draft in June, remaining in school rather than leaving may be bigger news. It certainly is for Pearl, who said, “I believe with all my heart he made the right decision.”
The Vols achieved their first No. 1 ranking in 2007-2008, the SEC regular season title and a second consecutive trip to the NCAA round of 16. But it will be starting next season without two key players — departed seniors Chris Lofton, the SEC 3-point record holder, and JaJuan Smith.
“I told Tyler, ‘Tyler, we are going to be good without you. Don’t do this for us,’” Pearl said.
But the coach conceded, “Can we be championship-good without Tyler? It would be more difficult.”
Smith proved in his first year at Tennessee to be “a go-to guy. He can make game-winning plays. He wants the ball in those situations,” Pearl said.
At the college level, Pearl feels Smith has the skills and talent to compete next year for SEC player of the year and first-team All-American — and those are Smith’s goals, as well as competing for a national title.
“But to get drafted in a position where his success is assured, he’s got even more work to do,” Pearl said.
Smith couldn’t say and Pearl wouldn’t say where Smith figured to end up in the NBA draft if he jumped now. But Pearl suggested it wasn’t in the top two-thirds of the first round, which would have made the decision to leave “a no-brainer.”
Smith said he wasn’t disappointed. “Not at all. Coming back wasn’t really a big problem because, I mean, I am here. I am home. I am with my family and I am really enjoying college life.”
Pearl said it will be the first time in three years that Smith, the 2005 Tennessee Mr. Basketball, can settle down and develop his skills.
Smith spent his first year out of Giles County High at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and his second at Iowa before his hardship transfer to Tennessee to be near his dying father and later his newborn son.
“Just being able to work on my game all summer and through the schedule that we have, I think it would benefit me more … to improve something I really don’t have in my game yet,” Smith said.
“I need to be more consistent with my jump shot, ball handling. There are a lot of areas I need to get better in. Even attacking the rim — even though I am good, I need to get better.”
Next season’s team will add newly signed McDonald’s All-American Scotty Hopson of Hopkinsville, Ky., and redshirt freshman guard Cameron Tatum, back from a knee injury. But with Lofton and JaJuan Smith gone, new leaders will have to be found — both on and off the court. Smith understands.
“Tyler will be our leader now. This is going to be his team,” Pearl said. “He has to buck it up, suck it up and be a pro while he is still in college.”