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Hit the Khwan: Tennessee Basketball’s Potential Defensive Star

Khwan Fore

First off, we gotta talk about this guy jumping out of the dang gym despite being an inch shorter than me.

Remember when people were super excited about Kwe Parker just because Kwe Parker, pound for pound, had the best vertical of any Tennessee player in probably ten years? That’s Khwan Fore, but Fore can at least do things other than jump.

Tennessee added Fore on a calm Monday night in Knoxville, though I’m sure it had been orchestrated for some time prior. These things rarely happen out of thin air; a coach and a player become friends, then partners in a basketball business over time. Fore may have silently committed, or perhaps it really was out of thin air. Either way, he’s Tennessee’s now, and we’ve got to find out we’re we can put him.

I’m getting the obvious out of the way first: with a clogged-up SG/SF situation and a height of 6’0″, Khwan Fore will be a point guard at Tennessee. Surprise! It’ll actually be a bit of a change for him: at Richmond in 2017-18, 89% of his minutes were at the 2. Why? Because Richmond’s point guard was 5’9″. Fore is now Tennessee’s shortest rotation player. I’d love for basketball to be truly positionless and open-flowing, as that’s when it’s at its most beautiful. Unfortunately, Fore isn’t six inches taller. (A note: Synergy Sports tells me Fore is 6’2″, but Richmond’s official site and everywhere else says 6’0″. I’m not sure why this is so.)

But here’s what matters: he can jump, he drives to the rim, and, when he’s willing, he can be a really pesky defender. Plus, he’s likely looking at just 15 minutes a night. It’s a low-risk, medium-reward signing: not bad, not beautiful, just good and fine. He won’t push Tennessee over the top, but he makes them deeper. He won’t be the sole reason Tennessee wins the SEC again, but he can make a critical difference in certain games. Let’s explore Khwan Fore.


MISSION: Attack at all costs

The dunk, again. But also this:

Perhaps the most attractive thing jumping off the page re: Khwan Fore is his ability and militaristic focus on getting to the rim no matter who’s in the way. Fore’s defender here, Matt Mobley, was the second-best player on an 11 seed that beat UCLA, Maryland, and Syracuse. He blows by him, probably gets fouled, and completes the play anyway. Another example, same defender, same game:

Among Richmond’s main rotation, only a 6’7″ power forward took a higher share of shots at the rim compared to Fore’s 53.3%. Fore only converted 59.5% of these attempts last year (around the national average for someone his size), but in 2016-17, he tossed in 65.1% of his rim attempts at an exact 50% share. Considering Tennessee had just one player put up more than 100 attempts at the rim last season (Grant Williams) and no guard (Lamonte Turner) had more than 67, this is some sorely-needed juice on the perimeter.

Other than that re: shooting, not known for outside prowess

There’s no reason to embarrass Fore by posting a meaningless GIF of a missed-three pointer. I’ll spare you the video, but not the stats: Fore, for his career, is a 31.9% three-point shooter. He’s never made more than 14 in a season. He barely averages one attempt per game. For those hoping Tennessee would add a sharp-shooter like November/December Jordan Bowden or Conference Play Lamonte Turner, I’m afraid you won’t get it. But hey, he gets to the rim, which Tennessee has needed badly from a perimeter player since Kevin Punter’s departure.

Speaking of Punter, he’ll get fouled a lot, and he loves picks and/or rolls

Another addition he could bring: the pick and roll. Tennessee ranked dead last in the SEC in 2017-18 in plays formed out of the pick and roll, per Synergy Sports. Of Fore’s top three play types (spot-up, transition, and P&R), being the pick and roll ball handler brought him the most success. In 2017-18, Fore’s P&RBH plays ranked in the 72nd percentile nationally. Sure, that’s not great, but it ranks right beside Jordan Bone’s 74th percentile ranking on about 60% of Fore’s possessions. (No other Vol guard ranked higher than the 53rd percentile, and two ranked below the 10th percentile nationally.)

Why does this matter? Think about it this way: if you could add an additional wrinkle to the Tennessee offense that could potentially free up more space down low for Kyle Alexander or Grant Williams with a guard that loves going to the rim, you would, right? Yeah, I’d think so. Fore’s not the most efficient guard I’ve seen – he’ll almost certainly bring less on offense than the average James Daniel night in January did – but he gets to the line, he brings new ideas, and you’re not asking him to adopt a completely different role than what he’s used to.

He doesn’t turn the ball over very much

Alright, sure, that isn’t exciting and you can’t just use video of a guy doing his job competently. But I can tell you that his turnover rate of just 14.6% was nearly in the top 20 percent nationally, and if we’re assuming he’s usurping the James Daniel role, it will be incredibly helpful to go from Daniel’s brutal 23.8% turnover rate to 14.6%. Daniel had over 100 turnovers in two of his three years at Howard and turned it over 49 times on the 206 possessions that ended with a play of some sort by him. Fore, on 101 more possessions, turned it over five fewer times. It wasn’t a fluke, either: Fore’s career high in turnovers was 62 in 2016-17, and that was at least partially skewed by a pair of random seven and five-turnover peformances. Fore’s had six 4+ turnover performances in his career, and four of them came in a season where he was playing 34 minutes a night. He won’t play 34 minutes a night at Tennessee.

A guess: he won’t play many late-game minutes

Unless the outcome is known one way or the other or Tennessee sorely needs a stop, at least. Keeping in mind our mention of Fore’s poor outside shooting, he likely won’t be called upon in a 3-7 point deficit situation to hit a three and get Tennessee closer in the dying seconds. He also won’t be likely to play in a game Tennessee leads by 1-6 points or so, because he’ll easily be Tennessee’s worst non-Derrick Walker free throw shooter in the nine (or ten) man rotation. Fore, for his career, is 182 of 292 from the free throw line (62.3%). Of Tennessee’s top six players from 2017-18, none shot worse than Kyle Alexander’s 71.2%. Barring a situation where Tennessee trails by three or less against a team with an excellent perimeter scorer or it’s a blowout, I can’t see many scenarios where Khwan Fore plays in the final three minutes of a game.


It’s all about motivation

A pattern that interests me across Fore’s career is that, generally, he plays his best against the competition he wants to play the best against. This isn’t a 1:1 deal, but it’s telling that his best offensive performance at Richmond came in the Atlantic 10 Tournament last season against St. Bonaventure (an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament) and his best defensive performance of 2017-18 (four second-half steals, including the game-winner along with the game-winning free throw) against chief rival VCU. That’s a good sign for Tennessee, considering they played one of the nation’s toughest schedules last season and almost certainly will this season, too. In games against Top 100 opponents per Bart Torvik, Fore’s PORPAGATU (a simplified version of Value Added based on boxscore stats) jumps by +0.6 for 2017-18 and +0.9 for 2016-17. Generally, you see those go down against better teams. He gets up when he wants to.

It is a little troubling to see the sharp defensive drop-off from 2016-17 to 2017-18 for Fore. What changed? Any number of things, but perhaps being a senior on a 12-20 team one year after being in the quarterfinals of the NIT might have been disheartening. Regardless, Richmond posted a 101.6 Defensive Rating (1.016 points per possession allowed) in 2016-17 with Fore on the court, and he registered as the team’s best defender per Jacob Goldstein’s Player Impact Plus-Minus metric. A year later, that Defensive Rating had cratered to a horrific 113.2, and for the first time in his career, Richmond’s defense was better without him on the court. In the interest of fairness, Fore was recovering from an injury for most of non-conference play. His defense got better as the year went on, but it wasn’t close to his 2016-17 output.

In 2016-17, Fore stole the ball 54 times. Last year? Exactly half that: 27. He went from being +2.73 in Defensive Impact Plus-Minus to -0.94. He wasn’t Richmond’s worst defender, mind you, but among the team’s eight listed guards, he ranked seventh. For a guy to go from one of the A-10’s most feared defenders to a pedestrian blow-by guy who showed up occasionally makes me think this was more about effort and concentration than anything else. Richmond did start 1-8 and 3-13 last year, so perhaps he was over it from the get-go, and an injury doesn’t aid that. Once Fore found his game offensively, the defensive side did pick up, so perhaps he played himself into caring. If so, it helped – Richmond went 9-7 over their final 16 games, Fore had a 104 Offensive Rating or greater for 13 of those 16 games, and they very nearly knocked off an NCAA Tournament team in the A-10 quarterfinals. If Tennessee gets 2016-17 Fore, they’ve gotten a (pun not intended) steal. If it’s 2017-18 Fore, start praying that Jordan Bone and Lamonte Turner can combine for 32 minutes at point guard every night.


The “A+, Would Buy From Again” Scenario

Simply put, you get to marry 2017-18 Khwan Fore’s offense with 2014-17 Khwan Fore’s defense. At all steps of the way, Fore has been at least a good defender. For one special year on a Richmond team that made the NIT quarterfinals, he was the team’s best defender and, at worst, one of the ten best in the Atlantic 10. He ranked in the 86th percentile defensively among all players, which is great considering this also ranks him with big men who give up fewer points and face fewer one-on-one shots.

No version of Khwan Fore offensively is anywhere near the best version of James Daniel. But: the best version of Khwan Fore is better than any version of James Daniel throughout college. Why? Daniel’s defense. The four full Daniel years produced the following DIPM ratings: -1.04, -1.70, -1.70 (again), and -0.60 at Tennessee. He was who he was: a minus defender who was exceptional offensively when given a lot of shots to work with. (He didn’t get that at Tennessee, for whatever reason.) Fore can’t match that offense, but he’s been at least average in OIPM (+0.19, -0.52, +0.93) and became a completely different offensive player down the stretch of last season, scoring his career high in his final game.

If Tennessee gets this specific version of Fore, it’s an absolute steal. It would be around a +1.3 point per game upgrade from Daniel, which is no small change – that adds about 2.6% to Tennessee’s average win expectancy on any given night. Better yet, subtracting Daniel and adding even an average of Fore’s 2015-17 play on defense would have added 2.1 points to Tennessee’s Adjusted Defensive Rating, which would have made them the third-best defense in America in 2017-18. Who’s going to score on you if you don’t have a single minus defender in your entire rotation? Also, you get these:

The “No” Scenario

You get any version of Khwan Fore offensively with 2017-18 Khwan Fore’s defense. More specifically, that’s first half of 2017-18 Khwan Fore. (To be fair, Fore’s Defensive Rating was 2.6 points better in conference play and he was recovering from an injury for most of November. He did seem to get in a second-half rhythm offensively, but Richmond was still deplorable on defense.) Fore is great at getting to the rim and drawing fouls, but how much does that help you if he only hits 62% of his free throws? The guy can’t shoot from outside, and anything away from the rim is a real lottery.

Plus, if he really does turn out to be Tennessee’s only minus defender, he completely loses his appeal as a backup option. I’ve got Tennessee’s backcourt projected as such for minutes:

  • PG: Bone 22, Fore 15, Turner 3
  • SG: Turner 24, Bowden 13, Bone 3

Fore makes this work by keeping Bone and Turner from having to play 30+ minutes a night. If he sucks, that goes out the window. Then you’ll have a rotation like:

  • PG: Bone 26, Fore 8, Turner 6
  • SG: Turner 24, Bowden 14, Bone 4

This overworks both Bone and Turner while simultaneously putting even more pressure on Jordan Bowden to lead the second unit. (Yes, I’m projecting this – Bowden was pretty easily Tennessee’s best perimeter defender last year but had brutal shooting numbers during conference and tournament play. The potential is still there for him to be an excellent 3-and-D guy; it’s just that Tennessee has six starters in a five-man game. No hard feelings, JB.) If Fore can’t fill his minutes, Tennessee will be forced to play six players for 170 of a possible 200 minutes a night. That will wear them down rapidly.

Worse yet, it’ll be the third notch on the belt of disappointing Rick Barnes transfers. Lew Evans was, at one point, supposed to be more than a joke player who was completely unusable against any athletic opponent at all. James Daniel was alright, but given room to do so, he could’ve been a 5’11” Lou Williams for the second unit. If Fore sucks, it takes the whole team down and will aid in another premature exit.

A Wild Guess of a Projection

He plays 14-18 minutes a night, doesn’t shoot it very often except for going to the rim, and forces a good amount of turnovers. Offensively, he won’t really be a help; you’ll hold your breath every time he shoots it outside of the paint and pray the free throws go down on the first rattle. Defensively, he could legitimately be a star – Tennessee’s last perimeter defender with a rating near his +2.70 in 2016-17 was 2015-16 Armani Moore (+2.69) and, before that, 2014-15 Armani Moore (+4.64).

In fact, Khwan Fore might really be a shorter Armani Moore: a guy who, God bless him, should’ve been slapped with the Double-Digit Rule: if it’s 10 feet or more from the rim, don’t shoot it. But I loved Armani despite the frustrations. He rebounded way above his weight class. (Fore probably won’t do this, but he rebounds well for a small guard.) He was nasty defensively. He had phenomenal, quick hands. He blocked a lot of shots for someone who was supposedly 6’5″ (yeah, right). You never wanted a possession to end with the ball in his hands, but if that’s how it went defensively, you were thrilled. That was 2016-17 Khwan Fore, and when you have that defense, you’re willing to forgive the aneurysm-inducing bricks from three.

He’s going to be Tennessee’s seventh man – a depth piece, a good and reliable defender, possibly more, and yet another stock booster for an already-stout Tennessee defense. Richmond fans really seemed to love him, and I’m sure Tennessee fans will too. Just don’t expect too much offensively. If you want a surprise offensively, start praying that someone at Tennessee has heard my cries for Kyle Alexander to develop a three. Let’s get it, Khwan.

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