Thrill of Victory

Vanderbilt's big night in the NBA Draft

The past half-dozen years have been a good run for Vanderbilt basketball. Over that span, there’s been an unprecedented five NCAA Tournaments, and even the one season in which the Commodores didn’t make the Big Dance with a freshman-laden roster in 2008-09, the season ended with records of 19-12 and 8-8 in the Southeastern Conference. Last season, the Commodores even did something they hadn’t done in 51 years: win an SEC Tournament.

But missing during that span has been a substantial VU presence in the NBA. Ever since Matt Freije played 19 games for Atlanta during the 2006-07 season, the Commodores didn’t have a player see a minute in the league until Derrick Byars made two appearances with San Antonio this spring.

Commodore fans won’t have to sit through a professional drought much longer. On Thursday night, three former VU players – Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor – were all picked in the NBA Draft, with Ezeli and Jenkins going in the first round, and Taylor coming off the board with the first pick of the second. It was the first time VU had a pair of first-round picks in the same year, and the three players selected tied a program high.

Here’s a closer look at all three players and their potential NBA futures:

Jenkins brings big-time scoring ability to Atlanta
At 40-26, Atlanta had a nice year in 2012, and a big reason was because the Hawks shot the 3-pointer well, ranking fifth in the NBA in percentage (37.0) and 3-pointers made (7.3 per game). With 30-year-old Joe Johnson (18.8 ppg, 38.8 percent on 3s last year) under an incredibly-expensive contract for four more years, the Hawks have their starter at shooting guard for the foreseeable future.

But behind Johnson, last year’s backup, Willie Green, is a free agent, as is Jerry Stackhouse, who will be 38 when the season turns two weeks old. So it made sense when the Hawks nabbed the guy whom many considered to be college basketball’s best shooter with the 23rd overall pick.

In turn, it’s not a bad situation for the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Hendersonville native, who became the first VU player to go in the first round since Will Perdue in 1988. Not only will he play for a quality team, but he won’t be expected to do much beyond what he does best – shoot the basketball – right away.

And when it comes to shooting 3s, nobody questions Jenkins’ ability to do that. Jenkins hit 43.8 percent of 699 his long-distance attempts in three years at Vandy. Of course, the NBA 3-point shot is three feet longer than the NCAA’s on the perimeter, though just 15 inches longer at the corners. Still, that’ll be no problem for Jenkins, who showed the ability to connect from 25 feet (and beyond) at Vanderbilt with regularity. Jenkins will be facing quicker defenders in the NBA, but with one of the quickest releases in college basketball, that won’t be an issue, either.

Defense has long been the question with Jenkins, but coach Kevin Stallings was effusive in his praise of Jenkins’ defensive improvement a year ago – and indeed, Jenkins proved to be substantially better at keeping his man in front of him and out of the lane in 2011-12. He may never be an elite defender, but with continued work he’ll be good enough to get by.

The other area where Jenkins needs help is in developing a more well-rounded offensive game. He rarely looked to pass at VU, and therefore barely averaged an assist per game. Much of that was by design – when you’ve got a shooter of Jenkins’ caliber, you want him taking the shots – but it never hurts to become more versatile if you want to stick around for the long haul.

And if Jenkins can just be respectable in the other areas, he’s going to play for a long, long time. Shooters of his caliber aren’t born often.

Ezeli heads to (American) home
Festus Ezeli may have been college basketball’s best story the last two years; if you haven’t read it, here’s a great recap from Sports Illustrated’s Pablo Torre from March 2011.

If you’re not up for reading the article and want a short summary, here it is: Ezeli moved from Nigeria to Northern California in 2004 and lived with relatives, finished high school at 14, grew to 6-foot-8, tried basketball but was horrible at it and quit, tried again at 17, and that time showed enough hope at the AAU level that a bunch of colleges offered scholarships. He picked Vanderbilt for the education and for opportunity to redshirt, and three years later, became one of the SEC’s big men.

Five years after arriving at VU, Ezeli added another chapter to the story when Golden State took him with the last pick of the first round. Ezeli might have been picked higher if it weren’t for two things: knee problems, and a game that still needs a lot of work. The 6-foot-11 center has shown little ability to score outside of six or seven feet because he does not have a jump shot, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (195 to 18) has to be among the worst in college basketball history.

Of course, struggles are to be expected when you enter the college as probably the least-experienced player in the game. The fact that Ezeli was able to demonstrate any upside is a testament to his physical gifts (he weighs 265 pounds, has a 7-foot-6-inch wingspan, and just 6 percent body fat) and his tremendous work ethic. Because of those things, he surpassed Perdue’s long-standing school record for blocks with 205 and hit 56.2 percent of his career field goals. He’s also improved his foul shooting to over 60 percent in each of his last two years.

As with Jenkins, Ezeli won’t be expected to start right away; he’ll be behind Andrew Bogut, whom the Warriors acquired by trade this spring. With most of Golden State’s by-committee front-court gone via free agency and Andris Biedrins’ career in steep decline, Ezeli should get a shot at some minutes – though it’s worth noting that the Warriors hedged their bets a bit by taking Bosnian 7-footer Ognjen Kuznic in the second round.

Ezeli still has enough work to do that the payoff for Golden State won’t come for a few years. The key to longevity will be finding a jump shot and polishing his game to stay out of foul trouble, because defensively he’s good enough to have an impact now.

Versatile Taylor gets an immediate shot in Charlotte
Jeffery Taylor can make a great case as not only one of the most underrated players in VU history, but as one of its best. The Swedish import proved early in his freshman year that he could become an elite defender, and his ability to play far above the rim cemented his status as an impact scorer. Taylor’s issue early was a lack of a jump shot – he hit just 1-of-11 3-pointers as a sophomore – but worked hard enough that he hit 42.3 percent of his 156 3-pointers as a senior.

All that Taylor really lacks now is consistency in his overall game, and particularly his ball-handling. Taylor can pass a bit, but he had more turnovers than assists in all four of his college seasons. His other issues were completely related to confidence: when things went badly for him, he could disappear on the offensive end for a week or two. Taylor seemed to have this issue licked, but when it re-appeared again in March of this year, it probably cost him a few spots in the draft.

On the other hand, when Taylor’s confidence is on, look out. He got the best of No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in a head-to-head matchup the three times that Vandy played Kentucky this season. Incidentally, Kidd-Gilchrist will be his teammate on the Bobcats.

The good news for Taylor is that he’s on a team that needs plenty of help; Charlotte went 7-59 a year ago, finishing with the worst winning percentage in NBA history. With mediocre journeymen Edward Najera and Matt Caroll’s statuses as unrestricted free agents, Taylor should see a lot of minutes as Kidd-Gilchrist’s backup next season.

Taylor should not only stick now, but I think he’s got a chance to be on an NBA roster for a decade, assuming his confidence doesn’t take a lick on an awful team next year. He already has the tools to be an excellent defender at the next level, and his added ability to shoot the basketball probably adds a couple more years to his career.