Tobe Awaka Set for Improvement After Gaining Confidence During the Summer

'He Is Growing Up Right In Front Of Us': Awaka Shines For Tennessee Against Georgia

Tobe AwakaTennessee forward Tobe Awaka. Photo By Avery Bane/Tennessee Athletics.

By the end of the 2023 season, Tennessee freshman Tobe Awaka had emerged as a powerful force on the defensive end of the court for the Tennessee Volunteers. A tenacious defender, Awaka’s energy and aggression on the court had him improving by the game.

But it didn’t necessarily start that way.

Awaka began his freshman season as an interesting piece for Tennessee’s bench standing at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds. Awaka landed in the single-digit minutes category in his first seven appearances of the season, but head coach Rick Barnes continually spoke about how “valuable” those minutes would be in the long run. And, in hindsight, he was right on track.

The first breakout game of Awaka’s season came against No. 13 Maryland in the Basketball Hall of Fame Invitational. Awaka played 17 minutes on the court and recorded seven points and eight rebounds in a strong defensive effort. Barnes said after the game that Awaka “put himself in position” to attack the court.

“He’s a rebounder,” Barnes said after the Dec. 11 contest. “And he’s a force. He goes and gets it.”

The Tennessee freshman would go on to play double-digit minutes in 14 of the Vols’ final 19 games including a 10-game streak in the middle of it. But while the defensive side of his game was starting to flourish near the end of his freshman season, Awaka was still working to find some sort of consistent offensive approach. Awaka ended his first season averaging just 3.2 points per game.

“I think my freshman year was a big learning curve,” Awaka said to the media on Tuesday in Knoxville.

The summer of 2023 might be the time when Awaka’s game takes a massive leap forward, though.

The rising sophomore was selected for the 12-man United States U19 national team for the FIBA World Cup in Debrecen, Hungary in June. While the Americans came up short in the quest for the championship, Awaka’s game delivered on the big stage.

In seven World Cup games, Awaka averaged 11.6 points on 60 percent shooting from the floor. Awaka also finished second on Team USA in scoring and rebounding across the entire tournament.

“Offensively, I gained a lot of confidence,” Awaka said about his World Cup experience.

It’s not to say that Awaka lacked confidence last year. At times as a freshman, sure, but he also says that the experience of his teammates helped him grow considerably throughout the year.

“I think playing against older guys – Olivier [Nkamhoua], Uros [Plavsic] – that got me better every day even though they might have beat me one-on-one or scored on me a lot during practice,” Awaka said. “Playing against those guys, going through that learning curve, it’s helped a lot.”

The defensive side of Awaka’s game, one that Barnes certainly demands from his players, also grew during his quick trip overseas.

“Defensively, I got better at moving my feet, guarding the perimeter guys. Just knowing what to do in certain situations, I’ve gotten better at that for sure.”

Awaka will return to Tennessee for his sophomore season in a big position. After losing Olivier Nkamhoua to the transfer portal (Michigan) and Uros Plavsic ending his time at Tennessee, Awaka will be looked at as one of the Vols’ critical pieces in and around the paint.

If the Team USA run was a sign of things to come, Tennessee will have a much more well-balanced Tobe Awaka wrecking havoc in the middle of the court this season.

“Just doing what Tennessee taught me to do,” Awaka said about what was working for him with Team USA. “Play hard, be aggressive at all times, and play defense.”

Author: Ethan Moore