The rest of us are just along for the ride.
Prior to last season, there was much discussion about who would be the team leader. There was a pretty good argument to be made that Jeff would be the natural go-to guy, given his off-the-chart abilities and the possibility that he would enter the draft following his junior season. At the same time, there was the shooting prodigy in John Jenkins who seemed poised for a breakout season, given that he was a bit underused (but unbelievably effective) as a freshman role player.
As the season wore on, Jenkins blossomed into the premier scorer in the SEC, while Jeff had a somewhat frustrating year where he was simultaneously brilliant on defense and maddeningly inconsistent on the offensive end, inexplicably disappearing for long stretches during games. It became John Jenkins’ team, though his inability to get his own shot off against premier defenses limited our ability to win close contests (as did our porous defense, but that’s another discussion altogether).
This season, conventional wisdom was that it would again be Jenkins’ team, and he was given preseason first team SEC honors as well as preseason SEC POTY and AA consideration. Jeff was hardly an afterthought, given his first team placement on both the coaches and media preseason first team selections, but there wasn’t a lot of talk of him being a possible SEC POTY. Given the overall consistency of his first three seasons, Taylor had established who he was in the minds of many observers.
Jeff Taylor had other plans.
While Jeff has seen a modest rise in his overall counting statistics, he has been a much better player overall and more importantly, a much more consistent player than he was in any of the previous seasons. The truth is that a lot of this improvement has been masked by a career low effort to this point from the FT line – he is shooting nearly 10 points below his career average (established in almost 500 attempts through his junior season), which has offset a tremendous improvement in his three point accuracy and his consistency in finishing around the rim.
His improvement has also partially been masked by a newfound willingness to take lower percentage mid-range jumpers that helps open up his drives as well as his looks from behind the arc. It appears that his defense has also improved, as with four steals tonight he is just 5 off of his career best effort. Furthermore, he has cut down on his fouling tremendously, which has kept him from fouling out of any contest thus far, and really hasn’t been in any real foul trouble the entire season.
It is now very possible that we are about to witness a finish to Jeff’s senior season that will evoke memories of Derrick Byars, but with
NBA level more athleticism. If there is to be an All-American or SEC POTY from Vanderbilt, I believe it is much more likely to be Jeff Taylor than John Jenkins or Festus Ezeli, and there is a fair chance that we have not seen the best that Jeff will offer. By the end of the season, do not be at all surprised if Jeff has made definitively answered any questions anybody might have had about the team’s ability to finish game and more importantly, close contests.
CKS’ best teams have always featured seniors who stepped up and elevated their games above where we thought possible, often times following a disappointing season. These teams have always had a senior (or group of seniors) take on a leadership role and responsibility for the direction and final destination of the team. With this in mind, Stallings had a nice anecdote in his postgame interview with Joe Fisher on how Jeff gave a pregame speech and how after he went over the game discussion at halftime, he turned to Jeff to let him speak prior to the team returning to the court for the second half. He noted Jeff’s surprise, as this was the first time that he had ever asked a player to speak at halftime. The fact that he chose Jeff to say a few words, and that Jeff was the one player who was dominant on a night when shots generally were not falling is what I consider an auspicious sign that Jeff Taylor has finally embraced (not just accepted) the leadership role that many believe should naturally be his.
Buckle up and enjoy.