Friday, Jan. 23, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- UNLV guard Derrick Jasper talks about the history behind his knee injury, looks back on his time at Kentucky and ahead to his future at UNLV
- UNLV guard Tre'Von Willis, who goes way back with Jasper, talks about what his pal can bring to the UNLV program once he's again at full strength
- UNLV coach Lon Kruger talks about there being no need to rush Jasper back to the practice floor, plus what he sees in the future for the Kentucky transfer
- Jasper warming up to Vegas (7-17-08)
- Jasper officially becomes a Rebel (7-14-08)
- Ex-Kentucky guard Jasper excited to play hoops at UNLV (6-16-08)
With a left thigh merely the same size as the calf below it, Derrick Jasper arrived in Las Vegas in July.
On one of his first days in a UNLV practice uniform, the Kentucky transfer lifted his shorts to reveal his legs to Rebels strength and conditioning guru Jason Kabo and trainer Dave Tomchek.
"Just visually, the difference between the two legs, it was pretty dramatic," Kabo said. "The left leg being his jumping leg and his injured leg, it's just something you really don't want someone to play on. There's not a lot of stability at that point if there's not a lot of strength or muscle mass, period."
His right leg, a strong, muscle-bound limb, represented everything he was supposed to be as a basketball player -- a 6-foot-6 hybrid point guard who could flex to play four different positions.
But that left leg represented something else. Tomchek said it was at 10 to 15 percent of its full strength.
"The first week we got him, we had to teach him how to stand up out of a chair," Tomchek said. "He did not have the ability to comfortably get up out of a seated position."
The sight alone on the left spoke volumes about the struggles Jasper had experienced since his knee began bothering him as a high school senior.
Jasper told Kabo and Tomchek that was the condition he played in as a sophomore at Kentucky, in which he came back from microfracture surgery on his left knee after just a few months of rehabilitation and missed only the first 10 games of the season.
That meant Jasper's transfer year in Las Vegas would be spent working back into shape.
"It's a lifelong deal for him now," Tomchek said. "He's gonna have to have maintenance issues for his knee for the rest of his life. He'll have to know that he'll always have to do extra leg work once he gets going."
Tomchek elaborated, saying that doesn't mean more surgeries, but constant strength exercises and icing.
As tough as it's been for Jasper to sit on the sideline during practices this season and simply watch, he knows he's getting closer to what he used to be.
Tomchek, Kabo and coaches stress daily with Jasper that there's no rush, no reason to hurry back onto the practice floor full-time.
Given what he and his left leg have been through over the past two years, he's beginning to see the sabbatical for what it is.
A blessing in disguise.
The hometown hero
There's one place where Derrick Jasper can go and know he'll be treated like royalty. It's Paso Robles, Calif.
In that small town with a population of roughly 30,000 in central California, Jasper's freakish combination of size and finesse drew the attention of several elite college coaches.
At a high school with a working farm on-site and its own wine grape vineyard, he blossomed in the San Joaquin Valley.
"He's terrific -- athletically, he was quite a player when he was healthy," said Scott Larson, who coached Jasper his entire career at Paso Robles High. "In this whole area, he was really admired. Here at our school, he's like a living legend almost."
Jasper showed some flashes of what was to come as a wispy, 6-4 ninth-grader, when Paso Robles wasn't so strong. Against perennial Los Angeles power Crenshaw High, he scored 26 points.
"He kind of steps up in big games, and physically he did some amazing things," Larson said. "That was kind of a statement of where he was gonna go."
Jasper led the Bearcats to the playoffs in each of the following three seasons, including one appearance in the Southern Section semifinals.
"For a small community that's removed from Los Angeles, and we don't get kids from all over to come, that's quite an accomplishment," Larson added.
On the summer traveling circuit he made noise, earning MVP honors at the prestigious adidas Super 64 tournament in Las Vegas.
Everyone could see Jasper's all-around tools, as he racked up points, rebounds, assists and blocks at will. But his athleticism and ability to put on an aerial show were limited toward the end of his senior season.
"My knee just really started bothering me," Jasper said. "My whole freshman year at Kentucky, it was real bad. Then, at the end of my freshman year, I decided to get the surgery. I could either get the microfracture, or just scope it. I just wanted to get the microfracture out of the way, because I didn't want it to keep coming up later in my career."
A tough, but necessary, decision
Not long after Kentucky was bounced from the 2007 NCAA tournament in the second round by Kansas, Jasper went under the knife, hoping to dissolve the lingering pain in his left knee.
The microfracture procedure creates tiny fractures in the bone underlying the knee cartilage, causing new cartilage to develop.
The surgery has had both success stories, most notably NBA superstar Amare Stoudemire, and career-ending tales -- former NBA all-stars Jamal Mashburn, Terrell Brandon and Chris Webber.
Recovery can take up to 18 months, but Jasper was back and playing under first-year Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie by late in the fall, missing the first 10 games of the season before making his sophomore debut.
"The doctor kind of kept close contact with me, his trainers did, and they kept assuring me that they wouldn't put him out there until he was ready," said his mother, Sue Jasper. "I trusted them, and felt like they knew what they were doing. He told me like two days before (his first game back), and I was kind of shocked that he was going to go in."
Neither Gillispie nor Kentucky's medical staff responded to interview requests.
Despite playing nearly 30 minutes per game after being cleared, he wasn't the same Derrick Jasper. His averages as a sophomore -- 4.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.4 assists -- were pretty much on par with those he put up as a freshman -- 3.9, 3.6 and 2.9, respectively.
But the subtleties were there.
"I used to dunk all the time," he said. "Last year, I didn't even have a dunk in a game. That's not like me."
In fact, Jasper said he was hardly able to grab the rim if he found himself in an open-floor situation.
"He wasn't able to jump as high, do any of his fancy dunks or anything like that," Sue Jasper said. "I thought he did good for what he was working with. He gave it his all. It wasn't real obvious to a lot of people. I could tell, being his mom."
It might not have been clearer to anyone more than it was to Larson, who was the last person to coach Jasper at full strength.
He drove to Anaheim to watch what would be Jasper's final game at Kentucky -- a 74-66 first-round NCAA Tournament loss to Marquette.
Jasper finished the game with seven rebounds, four assists and three blocks, with no turnovers. But when he had the ball in his hands, controlling the Wildcats offense, Larson knew he wasn't watching the same player who had led his program to so many wins.
His former player's steely resolve was displayed by the fact that he was the only player on either team to play the full 40 minutes, doing so on a left leg that was practically shot. But his lack of explosiveness was highlighted by his scoreless performance on only three shot attempts.
Asked today how he was able to do that, Jasper says he has absolutely no idea.
"He was a better athlete on the court in his junior year of high school than he was in that game," Larson recalled. "He wasn't able to do the things he could do in high school, now he's playing at such a high level, and it was really frustrating to watch."
Added Jasper: "I definitely wish I hadn't come back and played, but I'm glad I experienced that and played throughout the season with my teammates.
"It never really fully healed. I came back pretty soon at Kentucky. It usually takes like 18 months, so I think it probably got a little bit worse."
It was time for a change for Jasper, and homesickness began to play a major role.
Sue Jasper remembers her son getting off of an airplane in San Francisco while coming home for a holiday break. The first thing to hit him, he said, was the smell of the ocean.
"He was yearning for California and the West Coast," she said. "He learned a lot playing for Kentucky. I think it meant a lot to him. It helped him to grow coming out of high school, going somewhere far from home."
Jasper admits now that he was originally hoping to be playing professional ball within three years of his high school graduation. It didn't work out, but he was able to find the situation which kept his dreams alive.
"It definitely didn't happen the way I thought it would," he said. "But I guess it's a blessing in disguise to have this year off."
THE JASPER FILE
- Nickname: D-Jas
- Hometown: Paso Robles, Calif.
- Favorite Player: Jason Kidd
- 2006-07 Kentucky stats: 20.3 mpg, 3.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.9 apg
- 2007-08 Kentucky stats: 29.4 mpg, 4.2 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.4 apg
- Notable: Was named MVP of the adidas Super 64 tournament on the summer prep circuit ... Missed first 10 games of 07-08 season at Kentucky while rehabbing left knee from microfracture surgery ... Despite playing on a weak left leg, played 44 minutes against Georgia in the 2008 SEC Tournament, then 40 minutes in NCAA tournament first-round loss to Marquette ... Career high in points is 14 against Florida on March 9, 2008.
The blessing in a red and black disguise
One thing was clear when he arrived in Las Vegas. There's no rush.
After Tomchek and Kabo assessed Jasper's knee and leg, a plan was put in motion. So far, it's been a success.
"He came in in just awful, awful condition," Tomchek said. "He's made leaps and bounds in improvement. He's done all the work, I just stand there and tell him what to do. He's a very easy rehab person because he'll do whatever you tell him to do."
Tomchek said that after 2 1/2 months of rehab, the leg which Jasper played on at 10-15 percent of full strength was up to 60 percent. An educated guess today, Tomchek said, puts it at 70-75.
"I think initially it was pretty frustrating, but he started to see the results coming along pretty smoothly," said Kabo. "He got more confident, a little better, and now he's moving around pretty well when he's allowed to do stuff."
On the surface, it looks like a process that is simply no fun for Jasper, who spends his time during UNLV practices watching from the sideline with a straight face and few words, either sitting against a wall or dribbling a ball between his legs.
As the first- and second-teamers huddle up to talk strategy with coach Lon Kruger during breaks in the action, he'll saunter towards the group, taking in what he can.
Occasionally, he'll disappear from the practice floor with Kabo for strength workouts. That's one area where his competitiveness against himself shows.
"He always tells me that I put his weights too light, so that's great," Kabo said. "I'm like 'OK, I'll move 'em up.' I have no problem with that if he's gonna lift heavier weights.
"I've talked to him on a daily basis. We're either working in the weight room or talking about the next time we're gonna be in there."
Kabo said the key for Jasper has been rehabbing with more single-leg movements than anything, which allows him to focus on strengthening the bad leg while not neglecting the good one. That keeps him from compensating for the weaker of the two.
While in the weight room, they also have placed a heavy focus on building Jasper's upper-body strength, as his body is beginning to take on a striking resemblance to that of former Illinois star and current Utah Jazz all-star Deron Williams.
There's a certain level of trust in what Kabo and Jasper do, in that it's up to Jasper to make the call if he's feeling any awkwardness or pain in his left leg.
If he is, it's time to back off.
The same goes for his on-court workouts.
"It's kind of on his shoulders," said UNLV assistant Steve Henson, who works with Jasper on his shooting after practices. "If he's in pain, he needs to tell us. I told him it's not worth having your pride be too strong. If it's sore, then just back off. Our No. 1 concern is just getting him healthy.
"What we'd like to do is work on his release and his stroke a little bit before he's 100 percent. Just free throws and the mechanics of shooting. You can do work on that without doing any damage to his knee. We want him to be 100 percent when it counts, not 100 percent in April, May or June, even."
It was never more apparent than in a shooting workout two weeks ago, following a Rebels practice in the Thomas & Mack Center.
Jasper went through reps of just about every kind of jumper, from pull-up shots at the elbow to 3-pointers all around the arc.
While beginning to sweat, rattling off a series of long jumpers on the wing, he missed a few in a row, prompting Jasper to scold himself with an expletive under his breath.
Then, after canning four consecutive shots in the far corner, he did a little shimmy, and said "This corner loves me," directed at no one in particular.
"I'm just a competitive type of guy," Jasper said. "Even out here shooting after practice, I've got to improve my shooting, so I get as many shots up as I can to get better.
"I think I've made myself a part of the team. It definitely helps when you're out there practicing every day, but I'm a part of the team. Everyone's really welcomed me here, and I love it. It is kind of weird. I get a whole year to just work on my shooting, work out and get my knee a lot stronger, so next year will definitely be a fresh start for me."
Expectations all over again
A fresh start rehashes the expectations Jasper faced coming out of high school back in 2006.
He'll be part of a new-look UNLV rotation next season, joining UCLA transfer Chace Stanback, redshirting forward Matt Shaw and newcomers such as Carlos Lopez and Anthony Marshall. They'll be counted on to replace old faithfuls such as Wink Admas, Joe Darger and René Rougeau.
Stanback's carried a constant buzz around him for those who have watched or heard reports from Rebels practices this season, while Shaw's rehab from a torn ACL is nearly complete and he's practicing nearly at full speed.
The book on Jasper isn't as in-depth, as he hasn't played a game at full strength since his senior season at Paso Robles.
But the accounts of those days alone create quite a pedestal.
UNLV sophomore guard Tre'Von Willis, a Fresno native who played summer ball with Jasper, was one of the reasons Jasper ended up in Las Vegas.
"He's a big point guard, he can see the floor very well, he handles the ball, makes smart decisions and he's a guy who you want the ball in his hands to make plays," Willis said. "I can't wait until he comes back and I can play alongside him.
"His favorite player is Jason Kidd, and he kind of plays Kidd's game. He's an excellent rebounder from the point guard position and he can really distribute the ball and get open shots for his teammates. That's the kind of point guard you want to have."
Shaw, a Los Angeles native who crossed paths with Jasper repeatedly in the summer circuit, puts an even loftier tag on Jasper.
"He can do it all, like Magic (Johnson)," he said. "He's a big point guard. Other guards, he can just post up, body them and go to the paint. A 6-5, 6-6 point guard, you don't find too many of those."
But all of the praise and comparison can't be bought into just yet.
Not when the harnesses are still attached.
Every once in awhile, Jasper will unassumingly approach a hoop at practice during down time and rise up for a quick, powerful jam. Everyone in the gym will automatically turn a head and take notice.
The player inside wants to come out and, well, play.
After one recent Rebels practice, assistant coach Lew Hill tried to end a Jasper workout by saying "That's enough, young fella."
When Jasper kept going, Hill raised his voice and repeated, "That's enough!"
At the same time, Jasper has a firm grasp on just how fortunate he is to be in this situation.
"I know I need to get my knee stronger," he said. "I'm just excited, blessed to even have my knee getting better. For some guys, it's career-ending. I'm just happy it's getting better."