After placing his name in the NBA Draft last spring, Tennessee senior forward Admiral Schofield went through the process, working out for seven teams, but he eventually decided to return to school. Though he believed he could have fought and scrapped his way onto an NBA roster via the free-agent route, Schofield came back to Knoxville with one goal in mind.
“I wanted to become one of coach [Rick] Barnes’ favorite all-time players,” Schofield says.
Schofield had already been trending in that direction. Barnes loves gym rats, and Schofield is such a dedicated workout warrior even the demanding Barnes worries that the 6-foot-6, 241-pounder could wear himself down physically, or burn himself out mentally.
So far, Schofield is still of sound mind and body (one NBA scout told 247Sports last spring he resembled a “Greek god.”) And all the work Schofield has put in -- transforming himself from a chubby freshman who had trouble getting on the floor to a chiseled senior who’s challenging for All-American honors and has been climbing up NBA Draft boards -- coalesced in one shot for the ages.
On Dec. 9, the Vols and then No. 1-ranked Gonzaga were locked in an epic struggle at the Phoenix Suns’ Talking Stick Arena. With 29.5 seconds left, the score was tied 73-73 and Tennessee had possession. During a timeout, various options were being considered for Schofield to get the last shot, because junior forward Grant Williams, the Vols’ best player and 2017-18 Southeastern Conference player of the year, had fouled out.
“We’ve got situations we want to put Grant and Admiral in,” Barnes says. “Most of the time it’s around the rim.”
Barnes’ assistants wanted to post Schofield.
“I wanted to become one of coach [Rick] Barnes’ favorite all-time players."
“But I said ‘no, they can find him too easy down there,’ ” Barnes says. “We’re going to run a high ball screen.”
After the ball was inbounded to point guard Jordan Bone, Schofield set a screen on Gonzaga’s Josh Perkins at the top of the key and then slipped out past the NBA 3-point line. Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, who was guarding Schofield, sprinted along with Perkins toward Bone, who stopped close to the free-throw line and whipped a pass to Schofield. With Hachimura desperately lunging to close out, Schofield rose and tossed in a 3-pointer. Tennessee won 76-73. Schofield contributed 30 points and six 3s to the cause.
“I wanted to step out to the NBA 3 line to give myself more space,” Schofield says. “When [Hachimura followed Bone] my eyes lit up. It gave me so much space. I was waiting for the ball, and when it came, I just took the shot in rhythm.”
In his postgame talk to his team, quickly singled out Schofield.
“AD, when that shot went in, I promise you, I put my head down and all I could imagine was all the time you were in the gym,” Barnes said. Those last few words were hard for Barnes to get out; the usually stern, stoic coach was overcome with emotion. Barnes raised his arms and motioned Schofield over for a hug, then continued his praise as players and staff applauded. “I thought about how hard he’s worked in four years,” Barnes said, “and for him to do it … I knew it was going in. I really did. I just knew it was going in.”
Suffice it to say Schofield was taken aback.
“That was a first,” Schofield says of Barnes’ display of emotion. “I wasn’t expecting that to come out. When he first started talking, I didn’t think he was talking about me, and then he said AD, and I was like ‘wow.’ Coach Barnes, to his credit, has a different coaching style. He’s a very hardnosed coach. He doesn’t give many compliments, and even his compliments kind of sound like criticisms. When you get those compliments, it’s kind of like a shocker.
“When that shot went in, all I could imagine was all the time you put in the gym.”— Tennessee Basketball (@Vol_Hoops) December 9, 2018
Hard work pays off. pic.twitter.com/sfhkgxbflZ
“At that moment, it kind of made me emotional too, because I felt like I was one step closer to achieving one of my goals to be one of the best players he’s ever coached, and also one of his favorite players he’s ever coached.”
After that shot against Gonzaga, the deal was done, which means Schofield is in some fast company along with Royale Ivey, P.J. Tucker, T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant, all of whom Barnes coached at Texas and went on to play in the NBA.
“I’ve been hard on him,” Barnes says. “I’ve watched him grow up. I’ve watched him continue to grow. I have a great appreciation for guys that have a work ethic. I think it’s a talent. No one’s got any more of a talent for that than AD does. … He wants to play this game for as long as he can, and he knows he has to work hard to make that happen.”
Schofield’s family background prepared him for four years of playing for Barnes. His father, Anthony, is a retired Senior Chief with the U.S. Navy. Older brother O’Brien played football at the University of Wisconsin and spent seven seasons in the NFL, where he was part of a Super Bowl-winning team with Seattle in 2014. O’Brien Schofield showed his brother how to work and carry himself like a professional. And Anthony didn’t know it at the time, but the basketball drills he devised led to that shot against Gonzaga.
“Since I was a young kid, my dad would stand on the baseline under the rim and make me stand at half court,” Schofield says. “He’d just roll the ball anywhere, and wherever I caught it I would have to shoot it. That taught me range, that taught me feel, it taught me rhythm.
“After I got down the range and the feel of the shot, my dad would work on me getting it up high, and also getting it off quickly. But he would do it with a hand in my face. He wouldn’t let me see the rim. He’s a big guy.”
The result: After games of Jan. 9, Schofield was third in the SEC in scoring (18.0 ppg), fifth in field-goal percentage (.518) and third in 3-point percentage (.449). And Tennessee, ranked No. 3 in the nation, was 13-1.
Though Schofield, an Illinois native, wasn’t heavily recruited by power conference schools, his offensive numbers aren’t too surprising. He always had a knack for scoring. He was recruited to Tennessee by former coach Donnie Tyndall but never played for him; Tyndall was fired after one season after alleged NCAA rules violations surfaced at his former school, Southern Miss. That left Schofield with a decision to make. Barnes replaced Tyndall, and Schofield wasn’t sure if he could play for the new coach.
Enter Dickey Simpkins, who played for Barnes at Providence and by coincidence was also Schofield’s AAU coach.
“[Simpkins] was my closest mentor,” Schofield says. “He gave me the rundown and told me [Barnes] could make me into a pro basketball player.” Schofield was sold.
There may have been times during Schofield’s first two seasons when he cursed Simpkins’ good name. As Barnes said, he was tough on Schofield. When the freshman showed up on campus in the summer of 2015, Barnes took one look at his 260-pound frame and promptly banned him from touching a basketball until he shed 30 pounds.
“While everyone else was working out, Admiral was running the treadmill,” says Tennessee senior center Kyle Alexander, one of Schofield’s closest friends on the team and another player Barnes has helped improved to the point where he harbors legitimate NBA aspirations. “I remember mornings where I’d go see if Admiral wanted to get breakfast, and he’s not in his room. I go to the gym and he’s been on the treadmill since 8 a.m., and it’s 9:30. But he lost those 30 pounds.”
During his oversized seasons, Schofield was sometimes needed to play in the post.
“He’s in the game guarding 7-footers because I wasn’t doing my job at that time,” Alexander says. “He did what he had to do to help the team. But you could tell he wanted to make that transition to the wing. He spent the whole summer [of 2017] working out—in the gym twice a day, on weekends, flying to places to work out. He was doing perimeter stuff, and trying to prove to coach Barnes he could guard the wing.”
Last season, after having grown an inch to 6-6 and sculpted himself into a ripped 241 pounds, Schofield earned his promotion to the perimeter and became one of the best players in the SEC -- during a three-game stretch in late February and early March, when Schofield scored 25 points against Ole Miss, 24 against Mississippi State and 23 against Georgia, no player in the league was any better.
Though his new position took him away from the basket, Schofield still led the Vols in rebounding. And after making 46 3s in 137 attempts in his first two seasons combined, he drained 64 of 162 attempts.
Schofield returned to school this season determined to become an ever better all-around player. He had to prove to NBA scouts he could defend multiple positions and improve his passing skills. He’s done that while increasing his scoring and rebounding numbers. Schofield was chosen SEC Player of the Week in successive weeks after a 29-point, 11-rebound effort in a win Memphis and his heroics against Gonzaga, which also earned him national player of the week honors.
Now, along with Williams -- yet another player who will one day find himself in the NBA despite being an unheralded high school recruit -- and a cast of ever-improving teammates, Schofield has helped turn the Vols into a national championship contender. Barnes and his team have a narrow-minded focus to make this season last as long as it can, but despite that goal, staff and players are willing to talk about Schofield and the next level.
“He’s a pro,” says associate head coach Rob Lanier, who has seen a few during his time by Barnes’ side. “He has a professional approach to the game. His days revolve around getting better. I think there’s a place for him in today’s game, because he can really shoot the ball, he can defend multiple positions, and he’s going to get better because he’s going to keep working.”
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