KNOXVILLE — One of the benefits of Tennessee’s trip to Italy this month was the 10 full practices the Vols were allowed to conduct to prepare themselves. Those practices gave coach Cuunzo Martin and his staff a rare summertime opportunity to see what their newcomers can do.
To a man, the staff was pleasantly surprised by 6-7 freshman Derek Reese, a three-star recruit who may prove to be as good or better than several players rated ahead of him by the recruiting analysts. Not that Martin cares about star rankings anyway.
The Vols signed Reese because he fits the mold of the player Martin is looking for — he’s long, versatile enough to play more than one position and he can shoot. Martin and assistants knew all that before Reese showed up in Knoxville, though. What they were surprised about was Reese’s basketball savvy.
“He knows how to play,” Martin said last week before the Vols departed for Italy. “He’s got a good feel for the game. He knows when to throw the bounce pass. He knows when to penetrate, pitch and feed a guy. It’s the simple things that you kind of take for granted.”
“He’s been coached,” said assistant coach Kent Williams. “He’s got a good feel for the flow of the game. More strength, more experience will really help him.”
Reese has gotten his share of experience this summer. Before the trip to Italy, he took part in the Nike Global Challenge U19 tournament playing for Puerto Rico. He was eligible because his grandparents are from there.
Reese didn’t just show up and mark time. He averaged 21 points, 13 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 32.0 minutes, all team highs. He finished as the second-leading scorer in the tournament and was chosen to the International All-Tournament team.
Just as important as far as the Vols — who can use some perimeter punch — are concerned was Reese’s shooting accuracy: .458 from the field, .400 from 3 and .917 from the free-throw line.
“The Global Games helped me a lot,” Reese said. “It helped my confidence. I know what I can really do out there.”
Tennessee’s coaching staff has a lot better idea of what Reese can do, too. He’s a better passer than they may have thought, and he also battles on the glass.
“He’s a three/four, or four/three,” Williams said. “Whatever way you want to look at it. He can stretch the defense because he can really shoot the ball, but he’s actually a pretty good rebounder, too.”
Reese doesn’t care too much about where or how he’s used.
“Whatever coach Martin wants me to do,” Reese said. “I could be a pick-and-pop guy, set screens … If he wants me to rebound, I’ll rebound, and if he wants me to play defense, I’ll play defense. If he wants me to be on the bench to cheer on the team, I’ll do that, too.”