His Rocky Top League debut on June 15 got off to a rocky start, and that's putting it mildly. Tennessee freshman Shembari Phillips’ shots were rattling out, and his DeRoyal teammates were struggling to contain ex-Vol and Knoxville News-Sentinel star Bobby Maze, the league’s most dynamic player.
As the 6-foot-3 Maze brought the ball up the floor midway through the second half the 6-foot-4 Phillips stepped up to accept the challenge of guarding him. Maze immediately showed up the youngster by launching a step-back 3-pointer from the deep left wing that swished through the netting. To his credit, Phillips didn’t get mad; he got even.
The Vol rookie answered with a 28-footer on the ensuing possession, then drained a 25-footer over Maze next time down the floor. Phillips nailed another 3-pointer moments later, finishing with 26 points in helping DeRoyal pull away for a 112-99 victory.
“When Bobby challenged him he changed his game,” DeRoyal teammate and former Vol Wayne Chism said of Phillips. “That’s when I seen that potential and that confidence. If he stays confident, his game will improve every time.”
Those words proved prophetic. Phillips scored 34 points in his second Rocky Top outing and 34 more Monday night in his third. This is noteworthy because the Rocky Top League boasts an assortment of capable perimeter players. Facing them should help prepare Phillips for his college career.
“He’s going to face a lot of good guards in this league,” Chism said, smiling as he added: “If he stays confident he’s going to be a problem (for opponents).”
Phillips sank just 10 of 25 shots from the field in his RTL debut, including 5 of 16 from 3-point range. Still, that’s not too shabby, considering the competition he was facing.
“Bobby Maze is a pretty good player,” he conceded.
Asked about the 3-pointer he made over Maze’s outstretched hand, Phillips smiled and diplomatically answered: “Bobby was playing some good defense. That was a good shot but great defense.”
Tennessee is short-handed at point guard, so Phillips may get some time at that position in 2015-16. He is confident he can play the point, if needed.
“I played point guard over the summer with my AAU team,” he said, “and I think I did a pretty good job…. I think I get my teammates the ball pretty well…. Wherever coach (Rick) Barnes puts me at, I’ll do my best to help the team.”
The Rocky Top League is basically pickup ball with officials but Phillips often directs DeRoyal’s offense on those rare occasions when his team runs a halfcourt set. He thinks he has handled the assignment well.
“I play point guard a little bit,” he said. “I get my guys open, get everybody the ball, get everybody touches so they can make plays for themselves. That’s all I want to do.”
After playing off the ball in high school, however, Phillips realizes he has a lot to learn about directing an offense from the point.
“I have to get better at ball-handling,” he conceded. “My court vision is getting a little better. One thing I need to work on is my shot selection. The point’s main job is to get everybody involved, and that’s something I need to work on.”
Phillips’ shot selection looked pretty good in his second and third Rocky Top League outings. Game 2 saw him sink 11 of 23 field-goal tries, including 5 of 14 from beyond the arc. Game 3 saw him nail 12 of 25 attempts, with 6 of 15 from 3. Through three games he was hitting 46.5 percent (33 of 71) from the field, 37.8 percent (17 of 45) from 3 and 75 percent (12 of 16) from the foul line.
Phillips struggled a bit in Game 4 Wednesday night (8 of 21 from the field, 3 of 12 from 3, 19 points) but continues to win friends and influence people.
"I love Shembari," Vol senior Devon Baulkman told IT. "He's an energy guy who handles the ball very well and is very athletic. He's a really good player, and he's going to be great in time."
Phillips signed with Donnie Tyndall last November but found himself adjusting to a new staff when Tyndall was fired and Barnes hired in March. Apparently, the transition to the new staffers went smoothly.
“They’re all great guys,” Phillips said. “I did my homework on Barnes, and he’s a great coach. He’s got a lot of years behind him. I feel like he can really take me to the next level and help me continue to grow.”
Phillips seems equally impressed with his new Tennessee teammates.
“Oh, I love these guys,” he said. “These guys are like my brothers. We fight for each other, on and off the court.”