Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2009 | 2:15 a.m.
Tre’Von Willis will sit in a dark room later this afternoon for 10 or 20 minutes, maybe even a half hour, and visualize exactly what he wants to do tonight against Washburn.
It’s only an exhibition game against a Division-II squad, but Willis doesn’t see it that way. It’s another chance to compete, another opportunity to make himself and his teammates better.
He’ll sit in the dark and envision the game unfolding all around him, screening foes to free a teammate, zipping a pass to another for an easy bucket and hitting some big shots.
“What can I do to make teammates think outside the box and not just do what the coaches want?” Willis said. “I’ll push them. Our coaches put in a plan for us. Structure. But if a team tears that down, you have to make a quick decision, a play.”
Kwanza Nelum nodded with a knowing smile when asked about Willis’s darkroom routine. He’ll do that before some practices, Nelum said, to prepare for and see what happens before it takes place.
Lately, Nelum said, Willis has been concentrating on success at the free-throw line. However, Willis admitted that his thoughts with the lights off run deeper than just what he wants to do that day.
“I visualize this team doing some special things this season,” he said. “That’s what I would love to happen. It has special meaning. We want to see how far we can take each other and push each other. We want to stay on the same page and try to reach that common goal.
“I don’t want to say what that is … we all have special things in mind.”
Brothers in arms
Nelum, 27, recently left Miami and came to Las Vegas to help Willis achieve his objectives, goals and dreams.
The two have been tight ever since Willis was 4 and his mother, Andrea McDonald, took 10-year-old Kwanza into her Fresno home because of problems in his home down the street.
“He went through a rough childhood,” McDonald said. “I was the one who pulled him in and helped him through hard times. When he lost his mom, he stayed with us. He’s a big part of our family.
“He’s a lot more like a big brother to Tre.”
Two or three times a week, Nelum pushes Willis – long after UNLV has practiced and Willis has tended to his school work – in late-night workouts that sometimes last three hours.
Willis is attempting to complete a strict regimen of 3,166 shots, to be taken all over the court and in rigid order. So far, he’s been able to get through a third of the demanding drill.
“But he’s a quick learner,” Nelum said. “He’s smart. He’ll get to the end of it soon, in a week or two.”
Nelum perfected the routine with, among a handful of players, close friend Jack McClinton, who led the Miami Hurricanes with 19.3 points a game last season.
McClinton, now playing in Europe, shot 45.3 percent from 3-point land as a senior. Willis shot 32.4 percent from long range a year ago and, Nelum said, the drill should help hone Willis’s all-around touch.
Especially free throws. As a sophomore, Willis connected from the line at a 73.7-percent clip. Nelum cringed when he caught UNLV games online and the play-by-play showed Willis had missed another freebie.
“It’s just to get up extra shots and stay sharp,” Willis said of the strenuous routine with the foster brother who he considers a blood brother.
“The goal is 3,166 shots. We take some of the things that NBA players do and include that in our extra work, alongside what we do in practice. There’s a level I’m trying to get to. Whatever extra I can do to help this team win, I’ll do.”
Willis was second on the Rebels in scoring (11.4 points a game), assists (105) and rebounds (137) last season, he also led the team with 77 turnovers.
His versatility was evident, and being more careful with the ball is a priority.
So is toughening the team however he can. Last week in practice, that meant tumbling out of bounds locked with sophomore forward Chace Stanback.
It looked as if the clench and steely glares would escalate into an exchange, but Willis rose and walked away. The two laughed about it later. It was part of Willis’s ploy to toughen the team.
“Being physical and tough,” he said. “Anything I can do to get something started. If I have to talk more, I will. If I have to be more physical and get tough for us to be more physical, I’ll do that.”
Willis also leads the Rebels in tattoos. They’re all over, up and down his arms, and across the width of the back of his shoulders.
But he hasn’t added any since he transferred in from Memphis and had some spare time on his hands.
“Tell you the truth, I have too many,” Willis said. “I slowed down a lot. That redshirt year was a long year for me … when I got most of the work, I guess. I sat back and thought, I have too many.”
The shoulder injury, from high school football, is doing fine. He needed cortisone shots on two occasions last season to deal with the pain, but it hasn’t acted up.
“If it has, he hasn’t said anything,” Nelum said. “He’s fine.”
Willis, who maxed out a personal-best 250 pounds recently in the bench press, is excited about this season. Hopefully, he said, his shoulder will stay healthy throughout the season.
“I’ve been smiling a lot lately, thinking about what this team can do,” he said. “And I feel I’m different than a year ago. I know what to expect. I’m more patient with everything.
“I wait to see if opportunities present themselves, and I try to take what I can out of the offense. I’ll see guys in certain places, and I’ll try to be effective and execute that play.”
McDonald said before last season that Willis’s biggest enemy would be his alarm clock. A week or two later, he got bumped from a start because he overslept and missed 90 minutes of a practice.
“I’m doing things differently,” Willis said. “That’s a great sign.”
A humbling experience
Willis also sees, and hears, his late uncle Bobby Warren when he shuts off the lights in his room and envisions his future.
Warren passed away from pneumonia complications early this past summer. He pushed Willis and Nelum in their driveway court. He’d press them on plays and tutor them on shooting.
“One of my biggest idols,” Willis said. “I know he’s still in my corner, looking down on me and wanting me to be the best I can be.”
Never settle, Warren told Willis and Nelum. You’re either going backward or forward, so never stop working. Both Willis and Nelum laughed when recalling Warren’s cackling drawl of a laugh.
Willis isn’t just dedicating this season to the memory of his dear mentor but his entire future in the game.
“I think about him all the time and I wish he was here and would get a chance to see me play college ball,” Willis said. “I know he’s with me in spirit. I’ll just give everything I got every time I step on the floor.”
In that darkened room, too, where he sees the future.
“It’s humbling,” Willis said of his lights-out sessions with himself. “You realize what you want to get out of life. I realize I have a lot of work to do. This team has a lot of work to do if we want to get some things accomplished.
“I decided I’m going to do everything I need to do to get out what I want to get out of my situation. Whatever I can do to make this team better, I will do.”