Tennessee brought in six newcomers this past offseason, including four recruits in the 2019 signing class and two transfers. In our four-part series, we’re giving Vol fans a chance to get to know Tennessee’s freshmen players better.
In Part I, we took a look at the Vols’ longest-standing committed player in their 2019 class, small forward Davonte Gaines. Now, we take a look at local standout Drew Pember in Part II of our series.
Tennessee’s coaching staff didn’t extend an official offer to Drew Pember until near the end of his junior year of high school. The Vols knew who he was before then, though; after all, it’s easy to notice a 6-foot-9 prospect in your own backyard. But UT’s staff wanted to further evaluate the Bearden High School standout, and they decided to give him the offer he had been looking for on April 30th.
It didn’t take Pember long to pull the trigger on a commitment shortly after that.
Pember announced his commitment to the Vols on June 8th of 2018. He was originally going to hold off an announcement till sometime in July, but a conversation with Tennessee’s coaches 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 the same day he announced 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.”
It was Pember’s performance during Nike’s Elite Youth Basketball League with the BMaze Elite team that made the decision an easy one for Tennessee’s coaches to go ahead and offer him. But he cut his teeth and flashed his potential first for his high school team.
Bearden head coach Jeremy Parrott spoke with me about what kind of player Tennessee is getting with Pember. According to Parrott, who’s been Bearden’s head coach the last three seasons, Pember came to Bearden as a 6-foot-4 guard and eventually grew into the lanky post player he is today.
“He came in as a shooter, I did know that about his history before we got here,” Parrott said. “We came in that spring of his freshman year, and that’s when I first met him. I think he might’ve been about 6-4 at that time and still growing. He could shoot it then, so when the growth spurt happened, what you had was a kid who maintained his athleticism, his ability to handle a basketball, and his ability to shoot it and stretch the floor. All that really happened that changed his game and added another dimension to what he could do was that growth spurt. He’s always been a pretty skilled kid.
“Often times, you don’t see kids hang on to that athleticism when they hit those big growth spurts, but he’s one of those guys that’s maintained it all and has become a really big kid.”
As a junior for Bearden, Pember was pivotal in helping the Bulldogs reach the Class AAA semifinals. Pember averaged 10 points, seven rebounds, three blocks, and 2.7 assists a game while leading Bearden to a 38-2 record.
But stats don’t tell the whole story.
Pember can score and handle the ball better than most post players, but he’s also a versatile defender. Parrott said he and Bearden’s other coaches would even put him on opposing team’s guards at times.
“We had him on some of the better guards in our conference at different times,” Parrott stated. “He’s not lost out there. He’s not uncomfortable out there at all. He’s one of those guys that can step out on the floor and guard a three. He can guard a two sometimes. He’s just a Swiss Army Knife out there. You can plug and play with him in a bunch of different situations. His feet are quick for a kid of that size. They’re going to have to get quicker at that next level, but I think Coach Barnes and his staff have seen a lot of things Drew can be, and there’s a huge upside.
“His multi-faceted nature is real intriguing and kinda exciting.”
Unfortunately for Pember, all that momentum he built up in his junior year didn’t immediately carry over to his senior season.
According to Parrott, Pember’s senior season was riddled with injuries that held him back from reaching his potential. Pember suffered a stress fracture in his foot over the summer that held him back at the start of his senior year.
“It wasn’t really diagnosed. It was kinda chalked up to being sore and kinda just nagging and thinking that only rest would help that to heal,” Parrott admitted. “We got into some early workouts in August, just some three-man workouts we can do, and the pain kinda popped up again. We went on the offensive with it then, and he got a diagnosis of a stress fracture and took even more time off.
“It just never would seem to heal. We really only played him in part of the early part of the season, maybe even some when he shouldn’t have been on it, but that’s because he wanted to be out there. Even under restricted minutes, he was still having discomfort.”
Parrott and Bearden’s staff continued to monitor Pember, and they grew increasingly worried about him. They sat him even more and treated him as best they could. It wasn’t until January that Pember really began to look like himself again.
“We began to be more and more worried about it. They went real cautious with it for his future and definitely for his well being,” Parrott said. “To say that his senior season was as productive as it could’ve been is not accurate. We didn’t really start to get him back full force until mid-to-late January. The team that we saw at the state tournament was the team I saw last summer.”
Once Pember was back in full force, Bearden began to dominate again.
The Bulldogs faced a brutal early season schedule against some of the top teams not just in the state, but in all of high school basketball. Bearden faced teams like Hamilton Heights, Mountain Brook High School, and Southwind High School.
But after that difficult start, the Bulldogs were battle tested.
Starting on January 15th, Bearden wouldn’t lose again. The Bulldogs throttled William Blount 96-71 that night, and that started a string of 20-straight wins.
It was around that time Pember came back and could contribute more, and he was a major factor in the Bulldogs going on a hot streak and defeating Memphis East in a rematch in the state title game.
Bearden went 32-5 overall and won the Class AAA Championship during Pember’s senior season, and his reemergence in the second half of the year was a big reason why. Pember was named to the Class AAA All-Tournament Team for his efforts. He averaged 13 points, eight rebounds, 3.7 blocks, three assists, and two steals a game in the tournament.
That strong close to Pember and Bearden’s season gave him a boost heading into the summer. Now, Pember is with the Vols and has been practicing with his new teammates.
For all the promise and versatility Pember brings to UT, his biggest contributions might not be felt for while, however.
Though he measures in at 6-foot-9, Pember only weighs 186 pounds according to UT’s official roster. He has length and height, but he resembles more of a beanpole than an SEC big man at this stage in his development.
Parrott sees that, and he knows Pember needs some time to add the necessary bulk to his frame to really cash in on his potential.
“He does okay in high school. A guy with his length in high school is just not normal. That’s definitely an advantage that we had. That kind of length along with his athleticism is a special thing,” Parrott said. “He’ll not be ready, in my opinion, to handle much post play as a freshman or sophomore at the SEC level depending on how his body changes. He’s gonna have to put on some weight and some strength to be effective there. He was effective for us just because he was 6-10, and also his ability to change shots and block shots.”
But just because Pember lacks the ideal weight doesn’t mean he played timid or was passive on the court.
“That being said, Drew has never been a kid that’s afraid of contact. He’s never been afraid to mix it up,” Parrott explained. “Any time he’s ever been called on to defend the post or work in the post, he’s taken that on full force. He doesn’t shy away from the contact, it’s just how effective will he be at banging around inside at the next level will depend on what kind of muscle they can add to that frame, and I think he’s a kid that can put some on.”
Tennessee doesn’t have a lot of options in their frontcourt heading into the 2019-20 season, so Pember may have to play out of necessity if things don’t break right for the Vols.
Aside from redshirt junior John Fulkerson, the Vols don’t return any players 6-foot-8 or taller with significant college playing experience. Tennessee will be relying on Fulkerson, redshirt sophomore Zach Kent, Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic, and fellow freshman Olivier Robinson-Nkamhoua in the frontcourt. And that’s assuming Plavsic’s immediate eligibility waiver is approved by the NCAA.
If not, Pember may be forced into action as is.
Regardless of when Pember plays, Parrott was thrilled when his talented post player told him Tennessee would be where he would be spending his collegiate career. There, Parrott said, he knows Pember will get the development he needs.
“When he first started talking about it, I thought ‘what a wonderful thing, a kid from Knoxville is gonna get the opportunity to be at Tennessee,”‘ Parrott said. “It was one of those things that came to be, and it was so great. I was happy for him. I was aware of the other schools that were recruiting him, some of the offers he had. But when an SEC school comes calling, and when it’s Tennessee and Coach Barnes, it was just such an exciting time.
“I was just so excited for him because not only is he going to get a chance to fulfill his dream, but he’s going to be able to do it at home, knowing he’s entering a program where they’re really going to develop him.”