KNOXVILLE - Robert Hubbs III briefly was back on the practice court at Pratt Pavilion on Thursday afternoon, accompanied by the large black brace on his troublesome left shoulder.
Whether the Tennessee guard will be back on the floor again this season is a bit of a mystery.
After his lingering injury flared up again last week, the Volunteers are considering the short- and long-term options for the five-star freshman, and it's possible Hubbs could have season-ending surgery on the shoulder that's bothered him since before his college career began.
"It's just a case of right now really getting all the information necessary, talking to his family, the trainers and the doctors and figuring out what's the best-case scenario moving forward," coach Cuonzo Martin said before Thursday's practice.
"Right now it's still 50-50 on whether we'll shut him down and he'll have to have surgery, and we'll go from there."
Hubbs sat out the past two games with the injury, and he'll likely miss Saturday's game against visiting Texas A&M. The shoulder has bothered him all season and erased a good chunk of his skill set. The athletic wing player has nearly as many 3-point attempts (32) as two-point shots (43) in 12 games this season.
During one preseason practice at Thompson-Boling Arena, Hubbs was hit on the shoulder while driving to the basket and staggered off the floor clutching it and screaming in pain. He lay on the side of the court for at least 15 minutes receiving examination as practice continued. The black brace is always under his No. 3 jersey for practices.
"You're talking about a very talented player and a guy that you count on for production, even though he hasn't played as well as he's capable of playing," Martin said. "He's a guy that brings a lot to the table. The most important thing, in talking with Robert, for me as a coach is Robert's safety. That's the bottom line, regardless of Tennessee basketball.
"We just have to do what's best for the young man, and I think if [surgery's] the best thing we need to do, we'll do it. It's a tough, tough deal, because he wants to play and he wants to be out on the floor, but if he's not the player he's capable of being with the shoulder, and in a brace it's tough to do the things he needs to do to be successful."
In 18.3 minutes per game this season, Hubbs is averaging just five points per game and shooting 30.7 percent from the field.
"It took away, in my opinion, his ability to drive to the basket and be aggressive and attack around the rim and not really wanting that contact, because of that shoulder," Martin said. "He had the opportunity to shoot his shots, but he couldn't get it up like he wanted to, unless he had spacing. Really driving to the basket and going and getting big rebounds in traffic, I thought that affected him."
The freshman's absence will open more minutes for senior D'Montre Edwards, who had played just 10 minutes all season before scoring a career-high 12 points against Division II Tusculum last weekend. In Tuesday night's rout of LSU in Baton Rouge, Edwards played nine minutes and hit a 3 in his first rotation off the bench.
"It did a lot for us, and it did a lot for me individually, just to see the ball in the basket and my teammates celebrating," he said. "I just want to go hard in practice every day. The coaches will decide come game time. As long as I'm able to defend at a high level consistently, hopefully I can get some more minutes out there.
"You always want to stay ready, because you never know when your time is going to come."
With Hubbs' importance to the Vols beyond this season -- they will lose top scorer Jordan McRae and big man Jeronne Maymon, and Jarnell Stokes could jump to the NBA draft -- it's likely Tennessee and Hubbs will err on the cautious side.
Since he's played in 12 games this season, it's unlikely he'll meet the requirements for a medical redshirt. Players must play in less than 30 percent of a team's games, and the injury must happen before the first game of the second half of the season. The nature of his injury and his health and future, though, are more important.
"It'll continue to happen," Martin said. "It could happen two days from now. It could happen in two weeks. The pain could last for 30 minutes, or it could last for two days.
"You have look at it and say, 'What's the best situation for Robert Hubbs?' Do you shut him down now so he has a chance to rehab and be ready in the summertime, or do you prolong this thing to April or May? Then all of a sudden you're talking about five months, and who knows when he'll back on the court and ready to go."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org