Photo courtesy of Wade Rackley, UT Digital Media
By Chris Dortch
A Tennessee basketball team badly in need of a leader may have found one on the night of Jan. 4, after the Vols were manhandled during the second half in a 69-51 loss at cross-state rival Memphis.
Speaking to the media after the game, sophomore point guard Trae Golden did little to hide his disgust and disappointment at the outcome.
“I would call us being soft,” Golden said, loud enough for his teammates to hear. “It felt like we were bullied.”
The American Heritage dictionary lists 13 definitions for the word leader, but the one that fits best in a basketball sense is this one: “one who has influence or power.”
College coaches talk often about leadership, or more specifically the lack thereof. It’s not easy for a 19- or 20-year old kid to call out his peers for such transgressions as being soft, which is why some teams go for extended periods without a leader stepping forward. It takes a rare sort of toughness to voice a negative opinion, something a teammate might not want to hear.
That night in Memphis, Trae Golden was tougher than trigonometry.
And three days later, in Tennessee’s Southeastern Conference opener against Florida, the Vols (8-7, 1-0) looked like a different team, beating the then 13th-ranked Gators, 67-56. Two of the players Golden singled out in his rant at Memphis stepped up against Florida, junior forwards Jeronne Maymon and Kenny Hall contributing a combined 25 points and 15 rebounds.
"They heard what I said and I meant for it to be heard,” Golden said after the Florida game. “I went to J and Kenny and told them that. I mean, when should Jeronne Maymon get dunked on? You've seen him; he's huge. So I told him that that's not cool. Basically, they stepped up to the plate."
Golden doesn’t limit his critique to his teammates’ performances.
"Everybody has their [bad] games,” he said. “[Oakland guard] Reggie Hamilton 35ed me [as in, scored 35 points against mostly Golden’s defensive efforts]. We're all a team here and everyone knows the message, and it's not in a negative way. We're all just trying to keep helping each other."
Two days later, Golden was asked how he defined the word “leader.” Might that tirade at Memphis been the work of a man who wields influence or power?
“I guess you could say that,” Golden said. “But I honestly don’t look at things like that. I just want to be a guy people can look to whenever this team needs something.”
As this season has turned out, the Vols have needed a lot from Golden. First-year coach Cuonzo Martin, a man not given to overstatement or placing pressure on his players, nevertheless has made it clear how important Golden is the cause.
“As Trae Golden goes, we go,” Martin said.
There are statistics to support that contention. Golden opened the season with a scoring binge—a career-high 29 points against UNC Greensboro, double figures in narrow losses to Duke, Memphis and Pittsburgh—but then faded. He scored seven points against an Austin Peay that was 1-9 coming into a game in Knoxville, and the Vols lost. Golden could manage just nine points in a loss at the College of Charleston and five as Tennessee struggled to get past UNC Asheville.
His mind reeling and the Vols struggling with a 4-6 record, Golden sought out the advice of his head coach.
“[Martin] told me he knew what I was going through, how teams were keying in on me scoring wise,” Golden said. “But he said there were a lot of other ways I could help this team, and that if I did that, the scoring would come. He gave me a lot of confidence.”
In Tennessee’s next game, Golden provided 11 points and six assists against just two turnovers in a win over East Tennessee State, and all of a sudden he was back. In Martin’s post-game press conference, he made a point of singling out Golden’s performance, even though freshmen forward Yemi Makanjuola had stolen the show by scoring 18 straight second-half points as the Vols pulled away.
Golden followed his effort against ETSU by scoring 29 against Chattanooga, and he delivered 22 points and three assists in that loss at Memphis. In 35 minutes against Florida, Golden contributed 12 points, seven assists and good defense against his counterpart, Erving Walker.
Known as a scoring point or a combo guard in high school, Golden didn’t get much of a chance to show what he could do in his freshman season, playing just 13.3 minutes a game under former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. The knock on Golden was that he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play defense, and that he had too much of a scorer’s mentality.
This season, Golden has slowly made adjustments.
“Being a scoring point comes with a lot of criticism and scrutiny,” Golden said. “I had to learn to deal with that early in the season. Last year, when we lost, it wasn’t put on my shoulders. We lose this year, and a lot of fingers get pointed at me. You just have to play your game, and it’ll all fall into place.”
Three statistics in particular measure a point guard’s worth and would indicate things have fallen into place for Golden. He leads the SEC in assists (5.4 apg), is third in free-throw percentage (.833) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.8).
Two members of Pearl’s staff who were retained by Martin have noticed the difference in Golden’s game from a year ago to now.
“I think Trae has always been very underrated as a passer in transition,” said Houston Fancher, Tennessee’s director of basketball operations. “But when he first got here, I wasn’t sure if he could ever be a point guard. Now you look at him and you think he can. The challenge for him was to become a half-court point guard.”
“He’s learning the offense, and getting better moving the ball in our offense,” said Mark Pancratz, the Vols’ coordinator of video scouting. “And he’s gotten a lot more vocal. That’s what you want out of your point guard.”
Talking about his continued maturation as a distributor—and leader—Golden again points to the counsel of Martin.
“I tell people all the time we have a father-son type of relationship,” Golden said. “He helps me out in so many ways, just like my dad. Coach isn’t scared to tell me when I’m not doing something right. But he’s a very laid back guy who gets his point across without having to yell.
“I wouldn’t be the player I am today without him.”