It's been one full season since Festus Ezeli left Vanderbilt and found a home with the Golden State Warriors. Now, his heir apparent in the post will make his Commodore debut this fall.
Freshman Damian Jones has earned high praise in practice and as a high school player. The 6'10" forward/center earned four-star grades from Rivals, ESPN, and Scout as a senior. Coach Kevin Stallings said he had the potential to be "the best post player [he's] ever coached."
That's quite a standard for the talented youngster to live up to. Stallings was at the helm when players like Ezeli and A.J. Ogilvy - both All-SEC talents - came through Nashville. Ezeli in particular was a beast in the post, grinding down opponents with his strength, developing an effective offensive game, and evolving into a punishing shot-blocking presence.
And the coach thinks Jones can be even better. The first step will be pairing with Josh Henderson to serve as Vanderbilt's backbone in the paint this winter. Henderson, a redshirt junior, will be one of the leaders of this young team. He'll provide leadership from the center position, and he'll be this team's first option in the post as the 2013-2014 season draws near.
Kevin Stallings has suggested that we won't see much overlap from Henderson and Jones on the court, suggesting that Jones is being bred as a center and full-time post presence rather than the floor-stretching power forward that Vanderbilt has relied on in years past. That's a strong plan for a Commodore team that will only get two more years of Henderson before he graduates. Since the two have different games - Jones is a physical banger underneath while Henderson has a softer touch and more of a midrange shot - they can provide several different looks for Kevin Stallings.
Will the pair be enough to bring Vanderbilt back to the postseason this winter? It may be a bit much to expect big production from the duo, but they have the talent to bring the Commodore frontcourt back to the salad days of Ezeli, Goulbourne, and Tchiengang. 2014 will give them plenty of opportunities to grow, but a long season could be ahead of them. Let's take a closer look at the two players primed to give the 'Dores a presence in the paint this season.
Josh Henderson - Henderson has been a finesse player in the post, but a full year of health has helped him add a little muscle and should make him a bit more stout around the rim. The redshirt junior is a shot-blocking presence with a soft touch on his jumper - though his lackluster free throw shooting (51.7%) - is a bit puzzling. His free throw rate belies his preference to fade away from the basket instead of pushing the ball inside and drawing fouls. He attempted fewer than two free throws per game despite playing more than 20 minutes per contest. For comparison, Festus Ezeli played about 23 minutes per game and attempted 3.5 more FTs than Henderson in his senior season.
He's more active in the post on defense, where his long arms and height (6'11") have made him a solid shot blocker, particularly as a help defender. He's still thin for a NCAA center, so opposing big men like Jarnell Stokes will be able to back him down if given the opportunity in the paint. Henderson looks a little bigger this year, but at 231 points he'll be ceding size to most of the other centers, and some forwards, in the conference. That means that his timing will be extra important in altering shots and keeping opponents from scoring at will down low.
"Hendo" needs to improve his rebounding up front as well. He pulled down only 3.5 boards per game last season, and that's a number that can rise significantly thanks to his long frame. He's a solid passer from the post, and that should help on a team that had stale ball movement last season. His ability to find open cutters and shooters on the perimeter is a skill that the 'Dores can utilize from near the rim - although they'll have to get him the ball there in the first place.
Damian Jones - Jones is the most hyped freshman the Commodores have had since Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson came to town and the highest-rated big man Vandy has lured since Lance Goulbourne came to Nashville. At 6'10" and 235 pounds, he's already got more bulk than Henderson, and Kevin Stallings is priming him to hold down the 5 through his NCAA career.
The Louisianan has the temperament for it. Jones thrives on playing off contact inside, and isn't afraid to put a body on an opponent to drive them out of the paint. While much of his offense comes from around the basket, he's also shown the ability to take the ball out to the midrange where he has an underrated jumper/hook shot combination to keep defenders off guard. He's very active with and without the ball thanks to an abundance of energy and the willingness to chase down opposing players and loose balls.
He didn't put up amazing rebounding numbers in high school, but he was still solid enough to secure his position as a glass cleaner. His athleticism and size should help him fend off SEC big men for rebounds in traffic, but that's something that he'll need to work on over time. It'll be interesting to see how he fares in a conference where most of the other high-level big men are also underclassmen. The learning curve may not be as steep for Jones as a result, but he'll have to grow up quickly to contribute enough to get the Commodores back over .500 this season.
Overall: There's talent here, but it's untested or unproven. Henderson and Jones will give opponents plenty to think about due to their different styles. Jones is reason enough to be excited, but don't sleep on Josh Henderson, who plays smart and has the length to be a real asset for any team in the SEC.