KNOXVILLE — Derek Reese isn’t exactly sure when he suffered the shoulder injury that threatened to delay his freshman season at Tennessee until next year, but he has an idea.
Ironically, the injury might have come because Reese was too conscientious, too eager to do whatever it took to prepare himself for the rigors of Division I basketball. It happened in the weight room.
“I remember coming back from Puerto Rico (where his grandparents live) and we were lifting,” Reese said. “I hadn’t lifted for 10 days and—this is what I think—I thought I needed to work hard, push hard. I guess I pushed myself too hard.
“I never felt a tear. But after that workout, my shoulder was bothering me. I thought it was just sore because we had done a lot of shoulder work, but the next day, we were shooting, and I couldn’t shoot. The next day, it got worse.”
Reese told Tennessee trainer Chad Newman, who suggested a visit to the Vols’ team physician. An MRI was ordered, and what it revealed shocked Reese.
“I found out I tore my labrum,” Reese said. “I was surprised. So I asked, ‘how long am I out? A couple weeks? And they were like, no, you have to have surgery. And you might be out six months. That really hit me.”
It hit Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, too. Martin knew he was already going to be without preseason All-SEC forward Jeronne Maymon, whose setback after knee surgery has threatened to derail his season and force a medical redshirt. Now he was probably going to lose Reese for the season, too. And because Reese, just like Maymon, plays the all-important four position in Martin’s offense, that loss would be felt.
Recruiting analysts—and some Division I coaches—doubted whether Reese was capable of contributing at the SEC level. But Martin knew he could.
“In our offense, when you run motion, guys like Derek at the four position and Jeronne Maymon, you can facilitate your offense through those guys,” Martin said. “Because Derek can make shots and make plays off the dribble and Jeronne can make plays off the dribble, and your offense flows. When you don't have guys like that, things can become stagnant on offense.”
That much was evident this season, when, without a shot maker or high-post passer to prevent defenses from zoning or sagging into the paint, the Vols struggled to score.
Give credit to Reese for not giving up. Expected to be out six months, or perhaps even redshirt, he worked overtime with Newman and strength coach Nic Christopher and was back practicing three months after his surgery. He wasn’t cleared for contact until this week, though, and not until Friday did Martin get word that Reese could play.
Martin knew he would insert Reese quickly into the fray against Xavier on Saturday night, and he wasn’t worried when the freshmen missed the first five shots he took. Nor was Martin surprised when Reese drained two huge 3-pointers in the second half to help erase a 10-point Musketeer lead.
“He’s a good basketball player,” Martin said. “He knows how to play. He hasn’t been in a lot of (game) situations, but he understands how to play. He’s got a tremendous IQ and a feel for the game.
“So it’s easy to have him on the floor, because he understands, and knows how to facilitate on both ends of the floor. He’s a good basketball player. Tough.”
Reese’s arrival is certainly going to mean a diminished role for newcomers Quinton Chievous, a redshirt freshman, and D’Montre Edwards, a junior college transfer. Neither played against Xavier, while Reese played 23 minutes and gave every indication he was going to be the stat-sheet stuffer Martin envisioned. Reese contributed seven points, an assist, a blocked shot and two steals. He also drew a key charge late in the second half.
Xavier coach Chris Mack thought Reese would play, but he had no idea what the freshman might contribute.
“I saw Cuonzo's remarks in the paper,” Mack said, referring to a Knoxville News-Sentinel story that quoted Martin as saying there was a chance Reese would play. “We didn't necessarily know what he could do as a freshman. They're a deep team. He's going to make them even deeper."
Reese’s attributes his well-rounded game to his two AAU coaches in Florida, Willie Anderson and Reggie Tucker.
“They taught me basically coach Martin’s mindset,” he said. “You’ve gotta play tough. You’ve gotta play D at all times. No matter what.
“When I was younger, all I wanted to do was shoot. But they told me I had to do more than that. I had to play D. I had to dribble. So they put me at all the positions—point guard, shooting guard. That helped me learn what to do in certain situations.”
That AAU training came in handy against Xavier. Though his shot wasn’t falling, Reese found other ways to help until it did.
"Coach always told me to have a clear conscience every time you shoot,” Reese said, “If you miss a shot, just forget about it and make sure the next one goes in. I just knew that eventually one shot would go in.”