LAS VEGAS — Derrick Jasper knew “something bad had happened” when he heard his knee pop.
UNLV basketball fans feared a possible nightmare scenario had landed upon Jasper, a former Paso Robles High star who is now a junior guard for the Rebels. Was it the same injury as before? Was it career ending?
As it turned out, the sprained medial collateral ligament Jasper suffered in his left knee during a win over Air Force on Jan. 26 was not related to the more severe left knee injury that forced microfracture surgery on him before his 2007-08 season at Kentucky.
And as UNLV (21-7, 9-5 Mountain West Conference) straddles the NCAA Tournament bubble, Jasper cautiously eyes a return to the court.
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Where others might have quit or become dispirited with another knee injury to rehabilitate from, Jasper keeps fighting.
“Here’s a kid who’s been dealt a couple bad cards the past few years, but he’s trying to shuffle them back in the deck and play basketball,” longtime UNLV athletic trainer Dave Tomchek said. “A lot of kids his age would have shut it down mentally.”
Though the target date for his return remains tentatively set for the Rebels’ Saturday regular-season finale against Wyoming, Jasper said he will be careful with the timetable.
“I don’t really have a set date,” he said of his return to the court. “I’ll probably be back when I feel confident.”
Knowing when Jasper will be ready to return at full health is a constantly changing concept, said Tomchek, who has worked with Jasper since his transfer from Kentucky in the summer of 2008.
“There are several outside influences,” said Tomchek, who felt Jasper was rushed back onto the court at Kentucky. “I’m the brake pad in the equation. I’m not going to put Derrick out on the court until he’s ready.
“You never want to rush anybody back, especially a young adult.”
The 6-foot-6 Jasper started all 21 games he played this season for the Rebels.
UNLV coach Lon Kruger said his club is “for sure” a different outfit with Jasper on the floor.
Though Jasper was averaging only 6.7 points per game, Kruger said his rebounding (4.9 rpg) and lockdown defensive play were crucial to have in the lineup.
With Jasper out, those team weaknesses recently were exposed in the Rebels’ season-long three-game losing streak.
“Derrick gave us a presence that was very valuable in terms of his experience,” Kruger said. “It’s his defensive awareness, his rebounding.”
Kruger said he was “really disappointed” to see Jasper suffer the latest injury, which occurred when teammate Matt Shaw inadvertently fell on Jasper’s knee after absorbing a charge.
“He’d worked so hard to come back from major knee surgery,” Kruger said. “He’d gone through the rehab. You hate to see him miss games.”
Tomchek said he and Jasper have established a “good healing point” for his knee, and they’re currently working on rebuilding its strength. Jasper has gone from walking to jogging on a treadmill in recent weeks and is now running on the gym floor.
Jasper has kept his outlook positive throughout the ordeal.
“I’ve been rehabbing most of my college career,” he said. “I’m used to it. The one at Kentucky was over time; this was more of a freak accident.”
While on the court, Jasper already had developed a reputation with UNLV’s fans for playing above the rim and igniting the Thomas & Mack Center crowd.
He and UNLV’s leading scorer, former Fresno-area prep star and Amateur Athletic Union teammate Tre’Von Willis, showed a chemistry dating to the summers they spent impressing college coaches.
“That’s like my brother, and I’m just hoping he’s all right,” Willis told reporters after Jasper’s injury.
Jasper, who is majoring in university studies and pursuing a master’s degree in business, has embraced the campus environment nestled only a short car ride from the Las Vegas Strip.
He still hopes to compete professionally domestically or overseas but has backup plans ready for when his playing days finally end.
“I really want to do something that has to do with sports, be an agent or coach — something to do with sports,” Jasper said.
To those wondering if Jasper has second-guessed his transfer from Kentucky to UNLV, he has a message: no way.
“I love it here,” he said. “It’s real close to home. I’m real grateful and blessed to be a Rebel. The fan support here, I didn’t realize how much it was. It’s nice to put on that jersey.”