- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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We see transfers all the time, but this one sticks out. A rising senior point guard announces he will be transferring ... in late May. His friend insinuates via Twitter that the player's decision wasn't actually the player's choice. Another former teammate (the son of the former coach, no less) does the same. And the weirdest thing of all? The team he's leaving doesn't even have another point guard.
"I had a great three years here at Tennessee, but I plan to play my senior year somewhere else this fall," Golden said in a news release. "I really appreciate the staff and all the great support from Vol fans. I'm definitely going to miss my teammates. I want them to have nothing but success in the future."
"We want nothing but the best for Trae," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said in the statement. "Everyone associated with our program wants to see him be successful, and we wish him well."
Of course, it's not weird to see a fourth-year player pursue a graduate transfer, as Golden will, which will likely allow him to play right away this year if his academics are in order. That's happening a lot these days, after all. But usually this sort of decision is made earlier in the offseason, as players typically prefer to take as much time as possible to find a new school and still leave themselves enough time to move and pick up summer workouts with their new teammates. This isn't too late, logistically speaking. But it is noticeably late.
Meanwhile, former Vols Tobias Harris and Steven Pearl have spent much of the afternoon tweeting about the Golden news, both insinuating -- if not outright arguing -- that the decision wasn't Golden's, that in fact it came from the top, borne of a "rocky" relationship between player and coach and/or a vague "academic issue" that was reported by CBS' Gary Parrish, among others. Martin has not responded to media requests for comment (including those from ESPN.com) yet, but there seems to be a consensus here -- that Golden wasn't right for Martin's style, that Golden was just plain bad, or that, as Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy put it, Tennessee "needed Trae Golden to move on for the Vols to move up."
Tennessee will field one of the nation’s most powerful frontcourts next winter, with Jeronne Maymon returning from injury to rejoin Jarnell Stokes, as well as developing scoring star Jordan McRae in the backcourt. All of that offensive talent will be of less value if the playmaker in charge of the team either can’t or won’t get those guys the ball.
There’s some debate regarding which category best describes Golden, but it’s one of the two. Although he only 38.3 percent from the field last season, he tried eight more shots than Stokes. Although Golden shot only 29.5 percent from 3-point range, he still attempted 95. He produced 12 games of two or fewer assists as a junior, including none in the Vols’ embarrassing NIT home loss to Mercer. Decision-making has not been the strongest area for Golden.
Allow me to halfheartedly defend Golden: No, he shouldn't be taking more shots than Stokes, but what other perimeter options did Tennessee have? Other than McRae, a 35.5 percent 3-point shooter, no Vol who played even remote minutes was a credible perimeter threat. Assuming Martin didn't tell his guards to never shoot 3s -- which would be analytically counterproductive -- 95 3s from your starting point guard at a 30 percent clip isn't terrible. Besides, it's not like Golden shot UT into a different style. The Vols finished 222nd in the nation in their ratio of 3-point attempts to overall field goals. They were an interior group.
And by the way: Golden finished the season with a totally respectable 29.0 assist rate, by far the highest on the team, and a 107.2 offensive rating, which was just barely less efficient than the still-unconvincing Stokes (107.4). I'm not saying Golden was Magic Johnson, but clearly the ball was getting to the right places pretty frequently and Golden drew enough fouls to compensate for his abysmal shooting.
The numbers aren't everything, of course. Martin and the words "hard-nosed" are frequently used in conjunction, but UT was actually at its worst on the defensive end last season, and that began with Golden's total lack of pressure at the point of attack. And intangibles do matter, everything from leadership to confidence to the little timing-ticks when a point guard swings the ball and runs the offense and establishes that zen-like flow -- or in brutish UT's case, lack thereof -- and whether his teammates all respond.
So, sure, you can see why some Vols fans, or even Martin himself, might be saying good riddance. But you can also see why others would be puzzled, because when you drill down into the things Golden does, he's not a bad player. Just flawed. And certainly better than anyone Tennessee has waiting in the point guard wings, because, you know, there is no one waiting. (The best option would seem to be incoming shooting guard recruit Robert Hubbs, who, according to our ESPN recruiting analysts, has yet to develop the decision-making skills to make him anything more than a scorer. Maybe Jordan McRae could move over and play some at the point? Maybe the Vols are confident late commit Darius Thompson is ready from Day One? Plenty of questions here.)
Facing a potential lineup gap like this, there must be some onus on the coach to mold his point guard into a more viable piece, right? Did that effort fail so miserably that Martin genuinely thinks his team will be better without its only point guard, a senior who assists teammates on a third of his possessions? Isn't that a huge risk? Or did Golden simply decide to leave the program? And if not, how much criticism, if any, will Martin deserve for running off a senior starter? Or is it something else entirely? Academic issues?
We don't know. But I do know this: Golden's is the strangest transfer of the offseason to date, and he hasn't even picked a destination. Stay tuned.