Bearden standout Drew Pember grew up watching the Vols play basketball from his home in Knoxville just a few miles away from Tennessee’s campus. He’d been to games and visited the campus plenty. But his most recent trip over to UT’s campus changed the entire timeframe of his summer.
Pember, a three-star forward in the 2019 recruiting class, was originally going to wait till late July to make a decision about where he was going to college. But a visit to speak with Tennessee’s coaches earlier this week completely changed his mind.
“I went Monday to watch the team lift and practice and I got to talk to Coach Barnes and Coach Lanier the whole time I was there, and it just made me feel like I needed to be there and like it was my home,” Pember told me just hours after he tweeted out his commitment to the Vols. “They’ve been recruiting me hard the last three months, and now I just get the opportunity to just go play basketball in July and go represent Tennessee.”
The 6-foot-9, 195-pound forward who plays for Bearden High School has burst onto the scene this summer. He put together a solid season for the Bulldogs this past year, but it was his work at Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League that made scouts take notice.
Though Pember was rated as a middle-tier three-star heading into the summer, he held his own with some of the four and five-star players at Nike’s summer league. And that got him noticed, and he got bumped up to the sixth-best player in the state of Tennessee and the top-ranked player from the state outside of the Memphis area according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Tennessee officially offered him on April 30th after some of his performances early in the summer league. And Pember’s connection with former Vol Bobby Maze — the head coach of Pember’s Nike AAU team, the BMaze Elite — helped as well.
“It’s been crazy,” Pember said of his recruiting surge this summer. “The first weekend in Dallas was kinda like…I had to get used to playing. But I began to realize I could play with some of the best players in the country, and I’m happy Bobby (Maze) let me play with him. He tried to get me to play with him last year but I couldn’t get the chance, but this year I could.
“The exposure has just been tremendous, and after those first two weeks I just went from zero to 100.”
Pember also picked up an offer from Davidson and drew interest from Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Maryland. But the Vols ultimately won out, and Rick Barnes and his staff’s ability to develop players is one of the big reasons Tennessee was his final choice.
“It’s been amazing to see their growth,” he said of Tennessee’s basketball program. “Ever since Coach Barnes came it’s just been some tremendous upside. You got guys like Grant Williams, Admiral Schofield, and a bunch of role players that do their part and play basketball well. They got great team chemistry, and they’ve got everything going for them right now, and I’m happy to be a part of a really good program.
“Coach Barnes and his staff have done a tremendous job in player development, and that’s something I’m going to need. I need to get stronger, and there’s a lot of stuff I still need to work on. But I’m glad to be part of a program that has the ability to do things like that.”
Development will be key for Pember. He has plenty of raw talent and upside, but he needs to put on more weight and get stronger. There’s been talk of him potentially reclassifying to the 2020 class and taking a developmental year before joining the Vols, but he says that hasn’t been finalized yet.
“There’s still a bunch of details that have to be worked out about it,” Pember explained, “but either way I want to be a Volunteer and I’m going to be there regardless.”
Pember’s offensive game is largely what separates him from other players his size at the high school level. He’s a stretch-four forward who has a smooth jumper and can hit threes. But he can also go inside and isn’t afraid to get physical on defense. And for such a defensive-minded coach like Rick Barnes, that stands out.
“I try to protect the rim at all costs,” Pember stated. “I use my length a lot against quicker players and players who are stronger than me. I get to use my length, and that’s probably my biggest thing and why I’ve become such a good defensive player.”
Whenever Pember joins the team, he won’t be the only scholarship player from the Knoxville area. Guard Jordan Bowden played for Carter High School and grew up in Knoxville too. Pember says he’s spoken with Bowden about that unique connection they have and hopes one day Bowden will teach him the ropes.
“A couple months ago I started talking to him,” Pember said of Bowden, “and he text me today to say ‘congrats’ and to think about that we’re two of the few local guys that have been offered by Tennessee, and we have a bunch of work to do.
“I’m happy for him to maybe even eventually be my mentor and help me through all this.”
Regardless of what class Pember is ultimately a member of, he still has at least another year before he joins the Vols. So right now, he’s still a fan and a recruit. And he has high expectations for what Tennessee can do this season.
“I’m expecting nothing but the best,” Pember said. “I want them to win every game, win every championship, and to make a statement in the NCAA Tournament. I’ve got big expectations, and I think Coach Barnes and the players will fulfill that. I’m excited to watch them.”