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Grant Williams is Tennessee’s star, but he can’t shine alone

Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

There’s not much that Grant Williams can’t do. The sophomore forward is Tennessee’s best player, an undersized big man that still manages to be a two-way force. He feasts on teams that try to guard him with a single defender. If opponents bring a double team, he shows off the vision and passing ability that several SEC point guards would envy. He rebounds well on both ends of the floor and blocks shots like a seven-footer. Put simply, Williams is an all-around star.

But he can’t do it all by himself.

That’s not a knock on Williams — he’s the best player on a top-25 team and possible SEC contender. No player can carry a team completely alone, and it’s hard to ask a sophomore to carry a team in such a competitive conference all by himself. In other words, it’s no coincidence that the Vols’ best performances have come when it’s not a one-man show.

The Vols’ early season win against Purdue was, for a lot of people, a coming-out party for Williams. Putting up 22 points and eight rebounds against the then-No. 18 Boilermakers and their star-studded frontcourt got the attention from talking heads and fans around the country. But that upset wasn’t all thanks to Williams. Lamonte Turner poured in 17 points, including a running 3-pointer that send the game into overtime.

In a low-scoring victory against NC State just two games later, Williams again led the team with 14 points. And with the usually-reliable Admiral Schofield not scoring a single point, help had to come from somewhere else. Jordan Bone and Jordan Bowden picked up that slack with 13 and 10 points, respectively. When Williams put up a career-high 37 points in the Vols’ first game against Vanderbilt, Schofield scored 22 points and Bowden added 12.

Even great players need good support to succeed. That’s especially true for post players, who need room to work in the paint. As a middling 3-point shooting team, Tennessee’s supporting cast doesn’t consistently provide that room for Williams. When players like Bone, Bowden, Turner and even Schofield get hot from deep, it gives one of the most dangerous post players in the country the room he needs to succeed.

Williams is good enough to fight through crowded defenses, but his job is made infinitely easier when the team’s perimeter shooting keeps the defense honest. In that way, good perimeter offense acts as a release valve for post players, relieving pressure on the big men.

Perimeter players aren’t just relieving defensive pressure on Williams, though. When the supporting cast members play well, they’re also taking the pressure of scoring off of his back. It’s hard for a sophomore forward to be relied upon to lead a team. Sometimes the defense keys in on Williams. Maybe his shot just won’t fall. Whatever the issue, Tennessee’s other players need to be capable of scoring themselves.

Tennessee’s recent win against South Carolina was a good example of this. In 31 minutes, Williams only put up 14 points. Turner picked up the slack with 25 of his own to lead the team. When the Vols beat Texas A&M at home on Jan. 13, Williams only scored nine points. Schofield, Bone and Bowden combined for 37, and even Kyle Alexander added 14.

Even though Williams scored 18 against Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, it still showed how important his teammates are. The vast majority of the sophomore’s points came from his 12-for-14 shooting from the free-throw line. He only hit three of his eight field goal attempts and was generally ineffective offensively. Bowden, however, was on fire. The Knoxville native hit five 3-pointers and scored a team-high 19 points to lead the Vols to a regular season sweep against their in-state rivals.

Relying on one player to be the sole source of an offense is a recipe for disaster. One good defender on the other side or just a bad day by that player can derail an entire season. When Tennessee’s supporting cast — especially the perimeter players — score and play well, Williams doesn’t have to force his offense or take bad shots. The offense runs smoothly, and if Williams is having a good night, he can still put in a great performance without having to do everything himself.

Despite all of Williams’ raw talent, he can’t pull this team to an NCAA tournament berth all by himself. The better the perimeter players play, the less pressure he’s under. The less pressure he’s under, the lighter the load that he has to carry. And if this team is going to reach its full potential, Grant Williams’ teammates need to lighten that load.

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