Vanderbilt basketball season officially kicked off last Friday, turning over a new era of Commodore swagger in Memorial Gym. Six players from last year's SEC Champion team have departed. Four of them (John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, and Lance Goulbourne) are currently employed by NBA teams. A fifth, Steve Tchiengang, is likely to play overseas. Rumor has it that Brad Tinsley will opt out of playing professional basketball, but he would have also had a shot to join the professional ranks in Europe if he desired.
That's a lot of talent for one team to replace. Fortunately, the cupboards aren't bare in Nashville. Several rotation players will get the chance to emerge as starters in 2012, including six former Rivals 150 prospects.
Two of those heavily hyped players will share time at point guard this season. Kedren Johnson and Kyle Fuller may share the same position, but they possess very different styles. Fuller, a junior, plays the game at full throttle and uses his quickness and explosive first step to protect the ball and create drives. Johnson, a sophomore, is a smoother presence on the court who showed more composure than his veteran counterparts in big games.
Johnson's emergence in 2011 was thanks in part to Fuller's struggles in his second year. The then-sophomore looked unhinged on the court as personal issues seemed to affect his play. Sadly, Fuller lost his father after a long battle with lung cancer in May of this year, and the emotional toll of his hardship must have made the sophomore's season a difficult journey. Johnson ended up stepping into his minutes, and delivered in some of the Commodores' biggest games of the season. His monster and-one layup broke a 62-all tie in the SEC title game and helped deliver the 'Dores to their first SEC Tournament title in over 60 years.
The offseason has helped Fuller regain his focus, however. He's been lauded as a workout warrior who has helped lead the team through the offseason while committing himself to his game. If he can capitalize on the frenetic energy that made him a bullish defender and offensive spark plug as a freshman, he'll be a vital part of Kevin Stallings's gameplans in 2012-2013.
So who will Stallings be turning to in order to man the point in Brad Tinsley's absence? Let's break down Johnson and Fuller's strengths and weaknesses:
Kedren Johnson (6'4", 215 lbs): Johnson, a former Mr. Basketball as a high school senior in Tennessee, emerged as a rotation player and clutch performer as his freshman season wore on. He earned big minutes in the postseason and was even able to usurp starter Brad Tinsley's minutes late in meaningful games. His resolve and ability to control the point evoked memories of Jermaine Beal's first year on campus, right down to the struggles from three-point range.
The freshman shot only 23.8 from long range, finishing the season with a 1-15 slump from behind the arc. Fortunately, he was able to keep defenders honest with a quick first step and the strength to get to the basket and finish drives at the rim. He'll need to improve his shooting in order to keep opponents from slumping away from him when he has the ball, but that's something he should be able to overcome. He also showed strong passing instincts in the paint, identifying double teams and threading the needle with a pass to an open man under the basket. Those skills will come in handy for a team that will need all the scoring that it can get in 2012-2013.
Johnson has decent lateral speed, but the key to his defense is his length and strength. The sophomore can cover three positions on the court (maybe even four) thanks to a big frame and a penchant for physical play. However, that reliance occasionally left him vulnerable on the perimeter against quicker guards, which allowed opponents to drive against him. That was a correctable mistake when Vanderbilt had Festus Ezeli on the inside to erase shots, but it could be a liability for a Commodore squad that is low on big men.
Johnson's leadership and composure have made him the frontrunner for Tinsley's former starting spot this season. He'll need to show that he can avoid a sophomore slump and continue to grow now that opponents will have the ability to study up on his game tape. His prospects at the point will depend on his ability to cut out the learning-curve mistakes he made as a freshman and his commitment to becoming a viable shooting threat. Both are issues that he can rise above in his second year in Nashville - and he'll have to if the Commodores want to return to the postseason in 2013.
Kyle Fuller (6'1, 200 lbs): Fuller is, with regards to the concept of understatement, a high-energy player. He's a stocky, strong guard who tries to make use of every inch of the court while he's on the floor. After a promising freshman year, he regressed as a sophomore as his play shifted from energetic to reckless in several of his appearances for the Commodores. He settled for too many bad shots on the inside and out, and while he used a good first step to create drives into the lane, he was often unable to finish at the rim or pull the ball out for a reset. These problems led to him shooting a career-low 27.3 percent from the field. He was even worse from long range, missing all eight of his three-point attempts.
There were some silver linings in Fuller's play last year, however. Despite a rough season, he still managed to post a 1.7 assist:turnover ratio, which was better than his 1.62 mark as a freshman. For comparison, Johnson's was 1.57 and Brad Tinsley's was 2.07. He also still has high-level lateral quickness and the speed to get up and down the court against uptempo teams. That makes him a dangerous presence with the ball at the top of the key, and he's already shown a strong ability to get into the paint. If he can channel his energy into identifying help defense and either executing passes or developing a Tony Parker-style floater, he can regain much of his offensive mojo.
Fuller will be a defensive commodity that can distribute well from the point position. If he can build off last year's struggles and translate his myriad hours in the gym into SEC contests this year, he'll be a major contributor for this Commodore squad. Thankfully, Johnson's size and skills, combined with Vanderbilt's likely turn to small ball, mean that we'll be seeing plenty of lineups where Fuller and Johnson are manning the same backcourt. 2012-2013 will be a defining period in the junior's college career. Fortunately, all signs suggest that he's prepared himself well for the opportunity.