Media Day and post play
Mercedes Russell and Diamond DeShields crossed in front of Pat Summitt Plaza, oblivious to the chilly air and raindrops as they headed across the street. The two, who had been the featured players at the press conference held at Ray Hand Digital Studio, were chatting while they walked to Pratt Pavilion for the rest of their Media Day press interviews. As the entered the lobby, a writer for InsideTennessee said hello to “The Franchise.” They laughed and kept walking, but when it was noted that the appellation wasn’t meant as pressure, Deshields stopped and said, “We’ll take it,” while Russell smiled and nodded. Russell is back after surgery on both feet and will anchor the paint for Tennessee. DeShields is in uniform after sitting out a transfer year following a national freshman of the year campaign at North Carolina. Head Coach Holly Warlick tweaked the offensive approach to take advantage of their skills. Diamond is an outstanding talent,” Warlick said. “We all know that. I know that. I see that. But what I do see that I didn’t realize about Diamond, she’s a great team player. The knowledge that she has for basketball – really both she and Mercedes – I didn’t realize it until they didn’t play basketball and they sat on the bench and I listened to them talk, and I listened to them in practice.” Both will be on the court this season. Russell is healed, while DeShields, who played with a lower leg injury in high school and college while ignoring considerable pain, continues to be eased into practice. “I’m making huge strides each and every day,” DeShields said. “I can say that in confidence, every day I get better, every day I get stronger. I’m very confident in myself as far as when I’ll be back, and I know I’ll be good to go by the time that first game hits.” Tennessee wants DeShields to be an All-American, not an All-Practice player, especially in October. “We’re still going slow with her,” Warlick said. “She’s not on the floor 100 percent. We’re just watching her with contact.” The Lady Vols, who have a roster of 12 this season, had one player sidelined Tuesday. Sophomore Jaime Nared broke her left hand – she is right-handed – when her hand got stepped on when she was diving for a loose ball in practice Monday. She is expected to be out three to four weeks. Warlick has twice broken her hand/wrist – once with a bag strap caught the handle of the exit staircase from a plane and again when she slipped in an icy parking lot. “I can diagnose a lot of injuries now, especially anything to do with the hands,” Warlick joked. “She wanted to go back in and it hasn’t even fazed her. She won’t miss practice, so that’s a good thing.” Nared will be somewhat limited, but she said she intends to do everything allowed and will work on conditioning, ball-handling and one-handed shooting drills. The leadership in 2015-16 will come from two guards in Jordan Reynolds and Andraya Carter. Warlick had said over the summer that finding leadership within the ranks, especially identifying vocal players, was a priority. “I talked a lot earlier about leadership, and we’ve had the opportunity to have some kids step up,” Warlick said. “I think Andraya Carter and Jordan Reynolds have done an outstanding job of fitting into that role.” The two freshmen, Te’a Cooper and MeMe Jackson, handled Media Day with smiles, candor, singing and dancing. DeShields asked them once to pipe down when they kept singing while she was trying to finish an interview. They responded by quietly dancing and mouthing the words and then came over to listen to the interview. When DeShields was asked if they were ever serious, she said, “When they go against each other in practice.” Cooper’s pedigree is well-established with assorted All-American honors. Jackson arrive in Knoxville pretty much unheralded. “Te’a Cooper will play the one and the two,” Warlick said. “We’re really excited about her. She’s a highly intelligent basketball player who is very skilled. MeMe Jackson, who’s going to play a two-three for us, is extremely, extremely athletic. She doesn’t know how good she can be.” Neither player lacks for confidence, and Warlick indicated she intends to use her depth this season. Nia Moore, who earlier had drawn praise from assistant coach Dean Lockwood, also was lauded by Warlick. Moore, who can sometimes be reserved with the media, was funny and engaging Tuesday. Moore will be needed for post depth behind Russell and Graves, the presumed starters inside. Lockwood, who outlined the true posts for InsideTennessee earlier, also discussed the three hybrid forwards in Nared, Jasmine Jones and Kortney Dunbar. Jones is back after missing nearly all of last season with concussion syndromes. She said Tuesday the only time she gets a headache now is when she is hungry. That is easily fixed. She is fully cleared for basketball. “Jasmine is such a dynamic athlete – one of the most athletic kids that we’ve had here,” Lockwood said. “She is a Glory-type of athlete. She has versatility. She can slash, and she can post up. Jasmine is so valuable for defense and rebounding. Her ability to defend, her ability to rebound, for this team it carries enormous value. “She arguably can guard five positions, definitely four. Without question she can comfortably guard four positions. We’re looking for her to be an attack player. Get to the basket. Be a lockdown defender.” Lockwood never likes to ask “what if,” but while the absence of Isabelle Harrison in the post-season was noted, he said Jones also was missed, especially in the Elite Eight game last March. “If she’s in that game against Maryland, it’s a different game,” he said. “We have a legitimate lockdown defender.” Nared started slowly as a freshman as she adjusted to the pace and physicality of college basketball. She developed into a key player off the bench. “I am looking for her to have a break-through year,” Lockwood said. “She emerged last year. She really adapted. She adjusted, and she embraced what was being told to her. She really came on and helped us.” Lockwood was speaking before the news that Nared broke her hand, but at least it’s a preseason injury and one that won’t impact too much of her conditioning. Jaime is a very versatile player,” Lockwood said. “She is very strong. She can run. She can move. And she is deceptively quick. She has a good first step. She is capable of playing really solid defense. She can be a wing or a forward. “Jaime can hit the long ball and keep people honest. Jaime is strong. She can get in the lane and attack. She can use her strength and quickness. She is also a good rebounder.” Dunbar’s ability to shoot the ball is not in question. She also needed to improve her grasp of defensive concepts and expand her offense. When Dunbar was asked in the off-season to develop into a stretch four, the sophomore said yes. “She has bought in very well. She is invested,” Lockwood said. “She is learning the nuances of playing in the lane and the high post. She is a willing screener and you can get her into pick and roll and pick and pop situations. That gives us a nice dimension. “The big thing for her is she has got to consistently show that she can go to the other end of the floor and be a solid defender and rebounder for us.” The pick and pop/pick and roll references are part of the tweaking of the offense that focuses on two things – depth and aggression. “We have to attack,” Lockwood said. “We can play 12 people. We want to push the ball. The inside game is a big part of who we are and what we believe in. At the same time, we’ve got some depth on the perimeter and some people who can score.” With DeShields and Russell on board, the coaches want better spacing, less dribbling, better ball movement and solid screens. “We have to execute our concepts better,” Lockwood said. “It’s much more about using our personnel and having a stronger emphasis on certain concepts.” The Lady Vols open the season with eight consecutive games at home. That will allow additional adjustment time to get players acclimated to the concepts – and each other on both sides of the ball – while working in new players who will have significant roles. “We hope we get in a good rhythm,” Lockwood said. “The biggest thing? We hope we are healthy.” The biggest benefit of a long stretch at home is the time it allows for practice with relatively rested players who are sleeping in their own beds and in a routine. Road travel takes away from regular practice time. The flip side, of course, is that Tennessee’s first road tests come in December with Wichita State, Oregon State and Stanford. “The brutality of our schedule is going to hit us,” Lockwood said. “We want to start strong and start well. We want to generate some positive energy with our fan base and really connect as a team. “It’s our job to have this team playing with great energy so fans come and say, ‘Let’s go back. Let’s see this. This is exciting.’ ”
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