Tyree Appleby was a standout high school basketball player whom seemingly nobody was interested in.
Appleby, a guard from Jacksonville, Arkansas, was a dominant force as a senior at Jacksonville High, averaging 25.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists. He also led the Titans to the second round of the playoffs.
But nobody came calling.
“(Division I coaches) loved his game,” Victor Joyner, Jacksonville’s boys basketball coach, said. “I talked to all of them about him, and they were all kind of skeptical about his size. I kept trying to tell them that the kid has something special and it has nothing to do with his size, he can just play.
“But, you know, they passed on him for that reason.”
Even now, Appleby stands at just 6-foot-1 and 163 lbs.
Without a Division I offer, Appleby was thinking about playing at a junior college, but then he went to a tournament as an unsigned senior. His performance there resulted in five or six offers. They were from schools that were nowhere near household names, like Abilene Christian and Missouri State, but they were Division I offers. Appleby opted to sign with Cleveland State.
But then, everyone came calling last summer.
Appleby grew up in a big, athletic family. He has four siblings, two of whom played basketball at the Division I level. His older brother, Raheem, played at Louisiana Tech and now plays professionally in the Czech Republic.
Appleby’s sister, Shakyla Hill, dominated the Southwestern Athletic Conference as a point guard at Grambling State. Hill scored over 2,000 points and is the only player in NCAA history to have two career quadruple-doubles.
In high school, Appleby developed into a lethal scorer, averaging 11.2 points per game his sophomore year and 18 during his junior year.
Once, against a rival school in a standing-room-only gym, Appleby was on a fastbreak. He burned the other team’s guard, who some said at the time was better than Appleby, and then took on a 6-foot-7 big.
He took off from outside of the paint and dunked it.
“I just remember the gym exploded, and it took about three or four minutes for the security officers to get the kids back in the stands,” Joyner said. “I’ve had some of my bigger guys dunk like that, but to have someone of Tyree’s height to rise up the way he did and get as high as he did and dunk on somebody like that? No, I’ve never seen that on a court since I’ve been coaching.”
But his wiry frame was an issue.
So, when Cleveland State made him feel like he belonged, it was a welcomed change.
“They believed in me,” Appleby said. “They gave me a chance, unlike other schools, so that’s what drew me to Cleveland State.”
The Vikings put him to work right away. Appleby averaged 25.7 minutes per game his freshman season, the fourth-most on the team. He scored nearly 12 points and dished out four assists per game.
Cleveland State still struggled throughout the season, however. The Vikings hired former Georgia coach Dennis Fulton in 2017 after coach Gary Waters retired after 11 seasons.
Under Fulton, the Vikings faltered, falling to 12-23 and 6-12 in conference play and finishing eighth in the 10-team Horizon League. Despite this, CSU still had an opportunity to make the NCAA Tournament if it won the Horizon League Tournament.
The Vikings narrowly escaped their first game against ninth-seeded Youngstown State with a 72-71 win where Appleby had 14 points and four assists, setting up a matchup against top-seeded Northern Kentucky.
That’s when Appleby took over. The then-freshman slashed and gashed the Norse’s defense all game long to the tune of 24 points (including a game-sealing three to put CSU up eight with just over a minute to play), four assists and seven rebounds. The Vikings upset Northern Kentucky 89-80 and, after an ugly 44-43 win over fourth-seeded Oakland the next day, were one win away from making the NCAA Tournament.
But for Appleby and Cleveland State, it wasn’t meant to be. Playing their fourth game in five days, the Vikings were overwhelmed by second-seeded Wright State in a 74-57 loss, ending their season.
Appleby was even more electrifying in his sophomore season, leading the team in minutes. He tallied 17.2 points per game and compiled 5.6 assists per game.
However, that didn’t translate to success on the court for the team. The Vikings were a miserable 10-21 and 5-13 in conference play. And, unlike the previous season, only the top-eight teams in the Horizon League advanced to the conference tournament. Cleveland State was ninth.
After the season, Appleby knew there were greener pastures elsewhere.
“I talked to my family about transferring because I wanted to get a better chance of trying to go to the NBA,” Appleby said. “So me and my family talked about it, and that’s when I decided to transfer.”
He went from a no-name school with a men’s basketball program going nowhere to a valued commodity when he hit the transfer portal on July 1 last year.
“It kind of shocked me because I didn’t think I would get that much attention coming from a little midget school like that,” Appleby said. “But it was real fun for me, it was real fun.”
Appleby’s top three schools were all in the SEC: Arkansas, Texas A&M and Florida.
Obviously, having the opportunity to play for his home school of Arkansas was a big draw for him.
But his visit to Gainesville sold him on the Gators, and Appleby officially transferred on July 15.
“I always loved to play at home and in-state, so the family can see me,” Appleby said. “But I thought Florida was the right path for me just in terms of the coaching staff, and when I came down there, it was a great visit.”
Appleby wasn’t alone in Gainesville.
For one, he had already established a relationship with coach Mike White, who was Louisiana Tech’s coach when his brother Raheem played there.
“I used to always be up there, around the team, around Coach White,” Appleby said. “(I would) just walk into the gym, and Coach White would rebound for me all the time while my brother was eating a pregame meal.”
That would not be the end of Appleby’s connections with Louisiana Tech, nor was he the only one sitting out the season because of transfer rules.
Forward Anthony Duruji announced his decision to transfer to Florida from Louisiana Tech a few months before Appleby. The two spent the season with the team and, because of their shared predicament, a lot of time together.
“That’s my guy,” Appleby said. “(We) were roommates, so we built a crazy bond over the course of the year. He’s going to be a huge help this year.”
The two had previously known each other because Louisiana Tech is just a few miles away from Grambling State, where Hill was playing. Tech also had two players from Arkansas during Duruji’s last season, so he knew about Appleby.
The pair spent last season doing everything but playing in actual games. They practiced with the team, ate with the team and were on the sidelines with the team. Both of them were even front and center on the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in front of 90,584 fans when the team danced together during the Florida-Auburn game.
“It was great to know that someone else was sitting out,” said Duruji. “We would be at the house when the team was on road trips. We would take that time and bond.”
Appleby and Duruji did what most college guys do together: They played games with each other, hung out all the time and got food together, among other things.
“Tyree’s a competitor,” Duruji said. “Definitely someone you want to play with, he’s fierce. He’s got a big heart, he’s just someone you want to go to battle with.”
That didn’t make it any easier for Appleby to watch the Gators fail to live up to expectations, however.
“It was tough,” Appleby said. “I think that helped me more just because it made me so eager to play.
“I’m just happy now that I get to play.”
The first thing most fans observe about Appleby is his blazing speed. It’s not uncommon to see Appleby sprinting down the court with the ball in his hands in transition before scoring a quick bucket. It’s the first thing he mentions about his playstyle.
It would be easy to look at Appleby, an undersized, speedy guard with immense playmaking abilities, (his assist rate of 37.4 his last year at Cleveland State was 12th in the nation, according to KenPom) and immediately compare him to Chris Chiozza.
“In terms of his speed, yes,” said Florida assistant coach Darris Nichols. “I think Chris Chiozza was more of a pass-first guy, where Tyree is known for scoring the ball. I think Tyree is smart enough to know that he’s got a lot of really good players around him to get him the ball, so I think he’s coming into this year with a different mindset than he had at Cleveland State.”
Appleby’s speed arrives after the Gators played at a snail’s pace the last two seasons. Florida was 344th in tempo in 2018-19 before moving up to 326th last season, according to KenPom. Appleby would help the Gators play more in transition and at a faster pace.
“I think that fits our team better next year,” Nichols said. “I think that fits our personnel … I think (Appleby and Duruji) add another element of athleticism to what we have.”
The year off also allowed Appleby to hit the weight room more and bulk up, something that Joyner notes was hard to get him to do in high school.
“I used to have to beat him upside the head to get him to lift weights,” he joked. “When he got to college, (we) had a conversation, he realized that the weight room was like I told him it was going to be: the tool that was going to get him where he wanted to be.”
But he’s managed to flip the script in college.
“I think he’s gotten stronger,” Nichols said. “I think he’s taken advantage of the resources that we have at Florida, just in terms of nutrition and the weight room, those type of things. I think that’s where he’s made a big jump in the sit-out year … just physically he’s a lot stronger than he was when he got here.”
The point guard position is wide open for the Gators next season with former starter Andrew Nembhard announcing his intention to hit the transfer portal after withdrawing from the NBA Draft. Sophomore Ques Glover is currently the only other point guard on the roster, but that could change if sophomore Tre Mann returns to school for next season. Still, Appleby’s experience and abilities likely make him the favorite for the job.
But one thing is certain: Appleby finally has the opportunity to prove his naysayers wrong.
Follow Brendan on Twitter @Bfarrell727 and contact him at [email protected].