Check Chad Ford's stuff on ESPN or Jonathan Givony's over at DraftExpress.com, and you'll see a common thread regarding Vanderbilt basketball; they've got three professional prospects this year. The first two jump right out at you - A.J. Ogilvy is a bonafide center who, despite being a little undersized and not extremely athletic, is fundamentally strong and can carry his team on both ends of the court. The second, Jeffery Taylor, is a jump-out-of the-gym athlete who is only a developing jump shot away from first team All-SEC honors or better. In some point in their Vandy tenures, both guys have been labeled as potential lottery picks - though Ogilvy now seems to be sliding down the ranks as quickly as Taylor is rising.
So who's the third piece? Jermaine Beal, with his solid playmaking and ball control would be a worthy candidate to be a key bench player on a needy team right away. Or maybe Lance Goulbourne, based on flashes of potential and athletic ability could fill a role in the pros over time. Could it be John Jenkins with his impressive shooting and high freshman recruit ranking? Nope. The third member of this esteemed trio is Festus Ezeli, the backup sophomore center who averages 10 minutes and 2 fouls per game. So how is a player whose offensive game is best described as "childlike and anxious" Vandy's third best hope to break into the NBA?
Festus Ezeli, bringing back blocks...and also Jams shorts. via www.vandymania.com
Of course, being the third best prospect doesn't necessarily make you the third best player - in this case Festus barely cracks the top ten of a talented Vandy squad. What these scouts see is a mound of potential in a young man who looks the NBA part and is still nailing down the fundamentals of the game. When he was recruited in 2006, his only experience with the game was one year at the AAU level, making the Commodores his first real team. He came to Nashville as a skinny, 6'11" kid who could grab rebounds and not much else. And now, slowly, he's progressing. He made big leaps in his redshirt year to become a fringe rotation player - and though his rate of improvement seems to have simmered from freshman to sophomore year, he's still a key member of the 'Dores. He's shown he can contribute in spurts, limit his mistakes, and be effective with the right coaching.
Ezeli's strengths are rebounding and shot blocking. Once he learns to defend without fouling - a.k.a. Greg Oden Syndrome - he'll be an invaluable presence inside. But his weaknesses are just as obvious as well; he's a turnover machine, a terrible passer, a frequent fouler, and an offensive black hole. His assist-to-turnover ratio in 2008/09 was 1:43. In 2009/10, it's 0:8 - which actually denotes fewer turnovers per game, likely due to playing fewer minutes. His strength makes it possible for him to score off putbacks and absorb lots of punishment and fouls inside, but he also shoots free throws like he's angry at the rim (45%!). Still, that potential is there, hidden away in a made-for-basketball body.
Though Ezeli is still a fringe contributor, he's still in that raw clay form where he can be molded. We know what we're getting from Jermaine Beal, and it's understood that the ceiling of his basketball career is likely a smaller Jamont Gordon. His knowledge of the game is nearly maxed out, as are his natural athletic talents. Goulbourne, Tinsley, and Tchiengang can still learn, but are hampered by size, athletic ability, or both. They still have room to improve, but a jump from solid college player to NBA caliber prospect seems unlikely.
Ezeli has almost ideal size and athleticism; analysts like Ford and Givony recognize this and understand that while you can't coach size or speed, you can increase his basketball IQ. He could use a little more bulk, but that will come easily in time. These natural talents, combined with his play at a position of need in the NBA, have made him a top 25 prospect at his position, despite not even being a top eight player on his own team. His body is saying that he's got what it takes to play in the pros - but he hasn't figured out how to translate that into post moves and rotation defense yet.
Best case scenario, he turns into a smaller Hasheem Thabeet in his junior/senior years, and anchors the team defensively inside, allowing guys like Taylor and Tinsley to be aggressive on the wings and galvanizes Vanderbilt in Oligvy's absence. Worst case scenario, he becomes a more athletic Ted Skuchas - which would still be helpful if he could fill that role without bogging down the offense. Even if that means he doesn't progress beyond "big, awkward guy who's fun to watch," it'll still be a boost to the 'Dores.