CLEVELAND — It didn’t take long for Jeronne Maymon to serve notice that he was back.
Maymon, the Tennessee forward who missed all of last season because of lingering post-operative pain in his left knee, hadn’t played in so much as a pickup game for nearly 10 months before taking the court against past and present Vols in an open gym earlier this month. His performance surprised even his more veteran teammates who are used to seeing him do crazy things, like the night he scored 32 points and grabbed 20 rebounds against Memphis.
“The first day he came back to open gym, he guarded (former Tennessee player and two-year NBA veteran) Tobias (Harris),” said senior guard Jordan McRae. “And he guarded Tobias hard. So the same old intensity never left. We know that’s what he’s gonna give us.”
No one will ever know how much the loss of Maymon crippled the Vols last year, but it’s a safe bet their postseason destination would have been just a bit different. Tennessee was considered by some bracket experts to be the last team left out of the NCAA tournament. The loss of Maymon’s nearly 13 points an eight rebounds a game hurt, but his intangible contributions may have been missed even more.
“He has a great ability to lead,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, who brought his entire staff and a handful of players, Maymon and McRae included, to Cleveland High School on Tuesday night for the first of four scheduled stops on the Vols’ second annual Statewide Hoops Outreach Tour (SHOT). “And he understands what’s going on out there. Outside of his ability to play the game, what we missed, and what we’re glad to get back, is his role in leading our guys.”
Martin, who has been able to work out his players during the summer, has been reminded of what the Vols, who finished 20-13 and lost in the first round of the NIT last season, missed when Maymon’s knee was slow to bounce back from surgery performed in May 2012.
“Just watching him in open gym, making moves off the dribble, penetrate and pitch, finding his shooters,” Martin said. “Getting in the lane. Putting those shoulders on you. Jeronne brings a lot to the table.”
Maymon tried to put on a brave front last season, masking the disappointment he felt after he was shut down for the season.
“My routine was basically as a motivator,” he said. “To encourage the guys, get them hyped up and ready for the games. Helping them see things they might not see in games.
“But it was like tug and pull. Sometimes I’d be encouraging so much, coach would look down at the end of the bench, and I’d be on the edge of my seat, ready to get up and run to the scorer’s table. I’m just so excited to be able to play basketball again.”
Maymon’s return makes the Vols a consensus Top 25 team, despite the transfer of point guard Trae Golden, who will be replaced by Memphis transfer Antonio Barton. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound Maymon will once again team with 6-8, 265-pound Jarnell Stokes to give Tennessee one of the more physical front lines in college basketball.
“Now you add another true post in there along with Jarnell,” said Tennessee assistant Kent Williams. “Jeronne will be able to play the four and the five; when Jarnell comes out, Jeronne can go to the five and you can play smaller. Defensively, assuming he’s back to 100 percent, we can switch ball screens one through five. (Offensively) he’s going to be able to pick and pop, rip and go make plays. He’s a guy that, two years ago when we got pressed, he takes the ball out, we get it back to him and he helped us bring it up.
“You’re adding a bunch of things when you get Jeronne Maymon back. And we haven’t even talked about his rebounding. He’s one of the best rebounders in the (Southeastern Conference). Jarnell’s proven he can go out and do it. Now you have two big-time rebounders. There shouldn’t be any time we’re without a good rebounder on the floor.”
As much as Maymon accomplished during his junior season, his first as a significant contributor after being used sparingly by former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, it was his rebounding that stood out the most. In addition to that 20-board game against Memphis, he grabbed 19 against Auburn, 17 against Ole Miss and 13 against UNC Asheville.
How does an undersized power forward who isn’t an explosive jumper corral so many missed shots?
“You don’t think about it while you’re in the moment,” Maymon said. “If you’re the type of rebounder that just goes after everything and rebounds outside of your area, you’ll get a lot of rebounds. It’s all about position, timing, and just knowing where the ball is going to come off and playing angles.
“If a person shoots from the corner, more times than not it’s gonna go to the far side of the rim. It’s all about being smart, and just being relentless. A lot of people don’t like to box out. That’s like a lost art. People will put a hand on you, but they won’t box you out. You being relentless on the boards really helps.”
As much as Maymon was disappointed about missing last season, he was philosophic, too. The way he sees it, everything happens for a reason.
“It took me a while to get over it, to come to terms with it,” Maymon said. “I really didn’t understand why it happened, but God never makes mistakes. So I bought into that, and I have faith that I’m gonna come back stronger and better.
“And with everybody else back and some new guys who can really play, as a group I think we’ll jell and do what we need to do.”