When Tennessee’s basketball schedule came out several months ago, freshman guard Josiah-Jordan James scanned the list of games looking for one in particular.
When his finger stopped on the Vanderbilt game and its January 18 date, the former Porter-Gaud star couldn’t help but smile.
Two hundred miles away, Vanderbilt sophomore forward Aaron Nesmith was doing the same thing, though he was looking for Tennessee on the schedule. Nesmith started a mental countdown to the number of days it would be until the showdown with his close friend and former Porter-Gaud teammate.
“The Vanderbilt game was the first one I looked for,” James said. “Those games were going to be epic.”
The two SEC schools play Saturday at 6 p.m. (SEC Network) at Memorial Gym on Vanderbilt’s campus in the first of two games between the in-state rivals. The matchup between the two former Porter-Gaud stars, however, will have to wait for another day.
Nesmith, who had been the Commodores’ leading scorer through early January, recently suffered a foot injury and will miss the rest of the season, according to Vanderbilt head basketball coach Jerry Stackhouse.
It was devastating news to the 6-6 Nesmith, who has become one of the elite swing players not only in the SEC, but in all of college basketball.
James, who has reached out to Nesmith since the injury, said both players are disappointed they won’t play against each other this weekend.
“It was definitely hard to see a guy that works as hard as Aaron does go down with an injury like that,” James said on Thursday in a telephone interview. “I know we were both definitely looking forward to this game. We’ve had it circled on our calendars for a while. I talked to him and we’ll just have to see each other at another time, but he’s in good spirits.”
Porter-Gaud head coach John Pearson and AAU coach Antoine Saunders have coached both players since middle school. They and about 40 Porter-Gaud supporters have been planning on making the trip to Nashville for months.
“Aaron was able to get a block of about 20 tickets and then we got another 25 tickets as a group. As far as I know, everyone is still making the trip,” Pearson said. “It’s disappointing that we won’t get to see them both play, but we going up there to support them both.”
Pearson has coached both James and Nesmith since the sixth grade. He admitted that his loyalties were going to be torn. He had thought about cheering just for the home team during each game – Tennessee will host Vanderbilt on Feb. 18 – but decided against that. Like a father who would have to root for one of his children over another, Pearson wasn’t going to pick one.
“I was going to pull for both players and hope they both had career games,” Pearson said. “I was hoping that the score was going to be tied at the end of regulation and then I was going to make sure I turned out the lights so the game never went into overtime.”
A sentiment shared by Saunders, who along with Pearson coaches the TMP AAU team.
“I know how much they both put into these games and how much they want to win,” Saunders said. “One of them was going to lose so it would have been hard to celebrate either way.”
The two had not been on opposite teams since middle school when Nesmith’s Porter-Gaud Cyclones defeated James’ Northwood Academy squad. It’s a loss that still stings James to this day.
“He’s 1-0 on me and I can’t have that on my resume,” James said with a chuckle. “I was looking to beat them twice in the regular season, so I’d be up 2-1 on him when we came back to Charleston this summer.”
Together they were an unbeatable duo leading the Cyclones to three straight SCISA state titles. They took the TMP brand to new heights, competing against and beating some of the elite AAU teams on the circuit.
“That’s my brother, we won a lot of games and went through a lot together,” Nesmith said.
Pearson and Saunders rarely had them play against each other in practices or scrimmages. When they did the matchups would get physical.
“There were some scuffles,” James said. “We are both competitive and we want to be the best. We were not going to back down. We wanted to measure ourselves against each other.”
Nesmith was having a breakout season before the injury, averaging 23 points a game and shooting better than 53 percent from 3-point range.
“He can score at all three levels,” James said. “He can cause havoc on defense. You always have to know where he is on the floor at all times, especially on the offensive end because he’s coming off screens. He’s got the green light to shoot. Nothing Aaron does surprises me. I know his work ethic and I know how much work he’s put into his craft.”
Nesmith had been experiencing some minor foot pain for a few weeks but continued to play. Things came to a head after he scored 18 points against Auburn. Nesmith had an MRI and a fracture was discovered in his foot. He will be in a walking boot for the next month, according to Stackhouse.
James, meanwhile, was the crown jewel in Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes’ 2019 recruiting class. The 6-6 point guard had started from Day One for the Volunteers and has made the transition from high school to college quickly. James is averaging 8 points, 6 rebounds and has 40 assists in 16 games.
“His ability to create for others is top notch, one of the best in the country,” Nesmith said. “He’s very unselfish, he sees the floor. He’s 6-6 and sees everything, he sees plays before they happen. He’s a floor general and can lead the team not only offensively, but defensively as well. He’s very special.”
Pearson and Saunders are convinced that Nesmith has played his last college basketball game and expect their former pupil to enter the NBA draft this summer.
“I don’t know what more he needs to prove at that level,” Saunders said.
His college coach also expects him to move on to the NBA.
“He has an opportunity to create a legacy for his family and that’s the most important thing right now,” Stackhouse told reporters. “We’d love to have him, but we want what’s best for him. He’s had a great season albeit a short one. I think his draft stock is in a good spot. I’m looking to help his family with that decision. We’re going to give them all the information they need to make the right decision.”
James, too, could be a one-and-done player. The freshman could be headed for the NBA this summer. His size and versatility have caught the eye of more than a few NBA scouts. He has scored in double figures in seven of his last nine games and is shooting near 40 percent from 3-point range.
This is not considered an especially deep draft.
“We’ve had some NBA teams call us in the past few weeks,” Pearson said. “Josiah’s size, his skill set are exactly what the NBA is looking for.”