KNOXVILLE — Yves Pons is a spectacle.
UNC-Asheville coach Mike Morrell learned that firsthand Tuesday as the junior forward leapt well above the rim and spiked a Coty Jude layup attempt toward the court below.
“Pons, wow, what an athlete,” Morrell said. “We had a kid at VCU named Mo Alie-Cox who was that type of athlete, and he’s playing for the Indianapolis Colts right now. He had that ability to protect the rim. He’s just a physical specimen.”
The Fuveau, France, native has defied gravity throughout his Tennessee career, and he continued to do so in the Vols’ 78-63 season-opening victory over UNC-Asheville. He logged three blocks and a dunk, but he also showed that he may be able to offer UT more than an awe-inspiring vertical jump.
Pons logged a career-high 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting while grabbing seven rebounds in his first regular-season action at power forward. He spent the past two seasons playing small forward because of how the Vols’ roster shaped up.
“We wish we could’ve done with him a couple years ago what we did with Admiral (Schofield) — start him inside, move him outside,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I thought he improved a lot from our last exhibition game to right now. It’s going to be neat watching those guys grow as we go through here.”
Pons scored five of the Vols’ first nine points and recorded an assist and an offensive rebound in the first three minutes, 23 seconds, showcasing an all-around repertoire that has eluded him in the past.
A 3-pointer stood out most during that span because it was validation of an offseason shooting program that had him hoisting up 300 long-range shots a day.
Pons’ shot looks more fluid than it did a year ago when he shot 28% from beyond the arc, and it has resulted in him becoming one of the Vols’ best perimeter shooters — Barnes said he was over 50% during the preseason.
“It felt great because during the exhibition game I did not shoot like I wanted,” Pons said. “I’m comfortable shooting 3s now, so I’m going to take an open shot, and if it goes in, it goes in, and if it goes out, it goes out.”
He added a pair of turnaround jumpers in the post, scored 10 points in the paint and drew six fouls, all of which were positives for a UT team that entered the season with concerns about its frontcourt, especially after redshirt freshman Uros Plavsic was denied immediate eligibility by the NCAA.
“I’m just trying my best to do what they ask me to do,” Pons said. “It was a good challenge for me to go to the four. I’ve put the work in and it’s starting to pay off. I think I pretty much have it down.”
Pons has been nothing more than an athlete with stifling defensive potential the past two seasons, but Tuesday he looked capable of evolving into a basketball player that could play an integral role for the Vols.
“He can because of his work ethic. Yves is a great worker. I could put him up there with anybody we have had since we have been coaching,” Barnes said. “He is going to do everything he can to try to do it right to a fault. He is pretty hard on himself.
“Yves will continue to get better because he doesn’t want to disappoint anybody.”