Sometime last week, our friends over at Blog-a-Bull came around inquiring about Festus Ezeli. The 6'11.75" center had turned some heads in Chicago after a solid showing in the NBA Draft Combine. His combination of strength, length, and athleticism may have made him a first round pick despite a statistically underwhelming senior year at Vanderbilt.
Of course, that isn't very surprising for fans of Ezeli. The big Nigerian has always been the kind of athlete who would excel when it comes to athleticism and feats of strength. He's still flying under the radar just nine days away from the draft, but he's in a solid position to make some very good teams very happy towards the end of the first round. The Celtics, Heat, and Spurs are all squads who could use an impact player at center for 2013.
Here's what I wrote about Ezeli when Blog-a-Bull came calling:
Festus is definitely an intriguing player. He came to Vanderbilt as a mystery, a guy who had only been playing organized basketball for one year. He snuck onto the Rivals' Top 150 thanks solely to his size and athleticism. At 6'11 and 250 pounds, he had been one of Nigeria's most intimidating high school soccer goalies before moving to California to live with an uncle.
He redshirted his freshman year in Nashville and joined 2008's recruiting class of Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, etc. Unlike those guys, he didn't get the chance to play right away on a rebuilding squad. He played behind All-SEC center A.J. Ogilvy for the first two years of his college career, and it was pretty clear that he was a raw player. While he could rebound and defend, he was a magnet for both fouls and three-second violations. He was a beast in practice, but had difficulty translating that into games, which made him just a rotation player for a team that needed interior toughness.
He got his chance to blossom when Ogilvy left after his junior year to pursue a professional career. While questions surrounded Ezeli's ability to take over A.J.'s spot, there wasn't much concern from inside the Vandy camp. Festus rewarded that confidence with a breakout junior season. While his defense was still light years ahead of his offense, the work he had put into his game was paying off. Ezeli had developed a few nice post moves, increased his ability to get to the rim (and finish STRONG), fouled less, and improved his free throw shooting. He averaged 13 pts/6 rebounds/2.6 blocks that season while shooting nearly 60% from the field.
Expectations were high for his senior year, but outside circumstances threw a wrench in his plans. He was suspended for six games after letting a friend pay for a meal and a night's stay in a hotel room over the summer, and then suffered a knee injury that would cost him 10 games early in the season. That knee injury would lead to other complications, as compensating for one bum knee quickly developed into problems on the other. It's likely that his rush back to the court - sadly necessary after Vandy started their season 6-4 - contributed to these problems. As a result, he never really got back to 100% in his senior year.
Still, he was effective - particularly against Kentucky. Kevin Stallings keyed in on Ezeli as Vandy's best chance to beat the Wildcats, so we got to see lots of isolation between Ezeli vs. Anthony Davis in their meetings. Aside from Davis's otherworldly 28-11 in the teams' second meeting, Ezeli and Davis matched up very well, with Ezeli's strength going up against Davis's finesse. Ezeli ended up averaging 15 points, six rebounds, and two blocks per game versus the Wildcats in '11-12.
So what does Ezeli bring to the NBA? He's got a big, muscled frame and he's developed the skills to use his strength as a weapon on both ends of the court. He's an above-average athlete who, when healthy, has the timing and jumping ability to erase shots defensively. His rebounding numbers weren't huge at Vandy, but that was because the team's defensive sets counted on Ezeli to be the pivot point of the help defense, drawing him out of the paint to block shots and leaving him out of position for rebounds. He was, however, a solid offensive rebounder who can be an asset in the paint not only for grabbing missed shots, but for keeping defenders away from wings who are driving into the lane.
Offensively, he's still raw after only six years of true basketball experience. He's shown the ability to grow in leaps and bounds, but he's also going to be 23 years old when the NBA season starts. He developed a few reliable post moves, including a tricky up-and-under and a hook shot that was streaky but unstoppable when he was feeling it. His highlight reel will attest to his ability to finish at the rim. Ezeli goes hard and treats the basket like it slapped his mother. Whoever drafts him will ensure that their fans get their money's worth in summer league games thanks to Ezeli's quest to bend rims into metal boomerangs.
There's definitely a risk to drafting Ezeli, but the potential is there and he already has the size to contribute to a NBA team. Work ethic won't be a problem for the young man, and a team that has a defensively minded coach like Tom Thibodeau could work wonders with him. I can't see him filling a power forward slot, but he's got the size/strength to be a throwback center and the athletic ability to get up and down the court without slowing down an offense.
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