KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner believes his year away from competition has made him a better player.
Now he’s eager to show just how much he’s learned during that time away.
After being ruled ineligible last season, Turner will finally make his Tennessee debut in the upcoming season. He hopes to give the Volunteers the pure point guard they’ve lacked in recent years.
“I’m glad I went through that year,” Turner said. “I feel like I needed that year. It made me a lot hungrier. It made me feel like I’ve got a lot to prove.”
Turner didn’t initially feel so grateful.
Tennessee never specified the reason Turner was unable to play last season beyond saying that he wasn’t cleared by the NCAA eligibility center. Turner said the NCAA’s decision caught him by surprise and was devastating at the time.
The NCAA did allow Turner to work out with his teammates last season, and Turner spent many of those practice sessions guarding Kevin Punter, the Southeastern Conference’s second-leading scorer last season. Turner said his focus on defense made him more of a well-rounded player. He also spent countless hours in the film room and educated himself on how to properly scout for particular opponents.
Turner, a 6-foot-1 redshirt freshman, believes he grew so much from the experience that it almost gives him an unfair advantage.
“I feel like it’s kind of cheating to let somebody sit there and watch the game and learn so much stuff and then play the next year just because of all you can learn,” Turner said. “I’ve learned so much that it’s almost like having the answers to a test, you know what I’m saying? That’s how I feel right now. I feel like I have the answers to the test.”
Tennessee needs Turner to provide solutions for a program that is overhauling its roster after producing its first losing season since 2004-05. The Volunteers must replace three of the top four scorers from a team that went 15-19 last season. Tennessee’s 2016-17 roster will include six true freshmen as well as Utah State graduate transfer Lew Evans.
When Tennessee coach Rick Barnes was asked late last season who might take over a leadership role in 2016-17, the first person he mentioned was Turner. Barnes noted that Turner definitely would have started and that “we would’ve been a different team” if he’d been available in 2015-16.
“They have like a father-and-son relationship,” said Turner’s mother, Amanda Simpson. “Coach Barnes is crazy about Lamonte, and Lamonte has the utmost respect for coach Barnes.”
Turner’s life experience has enabled him to emerge as a potential leader before playing his first college game. He gained plenty of perspective during high school.
He left his Alabama home after his sophomore year to transfer to Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville, Florida. He spent his final year of high school at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
“It was really kind of like going to college a little early,” Turner said of the move to Arlington Country Day. “We’d play in New York today and would be in Florida next week. It was a lot like college. I was playing against a lot of guys who were going to be playing college basketball or the pros.”
He got even more of an education last year while being unable to play. The circumstances humbled him, particularly when he would walk around unnoticed while his teammates would be recognized.
“I just told him continue to pray and that everything happens for a reason, that his time was coming,” Simpson said.
That time is almost here.