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Men's Basketball Season Preview: Small Forward

Schoolhouse Rock was right. Three is a magic number. Or at least it is for these Commodores, who have a wealth of talent at the small forward, or "3", position in 2010-2011. Led by The Swedish Eagle Jeffery Taylor (nickname possibly apocryphal), Vanderbilt boasts a rich selection of high level athletes and interesting prospects who can play either small or power forward in the SEC.

Taylor has blossomed into the face of the mens' basketball team this season, getting media hits ranging from ESPN to Blue Ribbon Insider as the preseason rolls on. However, he's just the tip of the iceberg in the forward rotation. This lineup is stocked with athletic shooters who can stretch the court and defend multiple positions; their presence makes the three spot Vanderbilt's strongest entity. From high level prospects like Rod Odom to hardworking role players like Joe Duffy, there's a lot to like amongst the Commodores' prospective small forward lineup.

The Commodores' forward rotation runs seven deep with talented players, and many are versatile enough to bang inside or play on the perimeter. Today, we'll cover the guys who will be getting the bulk of the time at small forward, which means that Andre Walker, James Siakam, and Darshawn McClellan will have to wait until the power forward preview. Instead, we'll look at the four men who will be vying for big minutes at the three.

Jeffery Taylor - Vanderbilt fans have been anxiously tracking Taylor since he showed up on Kevin Stallings's radar as a senior at Hobbs High School in New Mexico. Over the past three years, we've watched him develop from a skinny athlete who was just beginning to grow his court instincts to a hulking mass of talent and a potential lottery pick in next year's NBA Draft. Suddenly, the Swedish National Team standout is just a jump shot away from being Vandy's best NBA player since Will Perdue.

Hype has surrounded the junior since he stepped on campus, and Taylor has committed himself to living up to the accolades and improving his game. Gifted with freakish athleticism, he's put in the hours to expand his offensive game and clamp down on defense in an effort to build himself into a five star player. As a result, the media spotlight will be shining brighter on Taylor than it ever has, and he'll be counted on to lead this team into the postseason on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, JT is known more for his athleticism than any shooting ability, but he proved last year that a step-back jumper was becoming part of his arsenal. Though it wasn't pretty, Taylor displayed shooting range to just inside the three-point line as a sophomore, showing improvement with his shooting and providing hope that he'll be able to add a reliable long-distance shot as a junior. If he can keep opposing defenders honest with an occasional three-pointer, then he'll have a much easier time getting into the lane and driving to the basket.

These slashing drives were Taylor's primary move when he arrived on campus, but defenders quickly learned that they could play off him thanks to a below-average outside shot. As a result, it was easy to get frustrated with the young player for not going to his strength offensively and driving to the paint - but often this was attributable to soft zone coverages easily converging on him since they didn't need to cover him out to the perimeter. Taylor's jumper in 2009-2010 took advantage of this soft defense, giving him more room to drive. As a result, opening up the opposition got him to the free throw line 50 more times as a sophomore than in his first year, where he also connected at a better rate (69.1% to 74.5%). This is a source of great hope for his future.

Defensively, Taylor has rightfully been the recipient of lots of media attention. He's got great length for a small forward, insane lateral movement and quickness, and a great work ethic on D. To round out his game, he's added over 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason, which should help with his rebounding numbers and keep any SF in the SEC from posting him up. However, whether this added mass will affect his speed has yet to be seen.

If he's been able to consistently improve his shooting, look for Taylor's offensive production to improve dramatically. Not only will more accuracy account for more threes, but it will open up the lane for the SEC's best athlete - where thunderous dunks and easy free throws await. 2010-2011 will be a huge year for Jeffery Taylor in terms of development, and while he's proven that he can defend on the next level, topping off his offensive set would make him a lot of money in the NBA.

Lance Goulbourne - Goulbourne is often lost in the shuffle amongst the recruiting class of '08, but is still one of the most talented athletes the Commodores have on the roster. At 6'8", 230 lbs he has the size to cover both positions and the athleticism to make some big plays, but he also often fades into the background on the court and fails to have a dynamic impact in games. He's often not aggressive enough to own his skill set, but even operating at 70% of his talent he'll be able to contribute for the 'Dores. 

Goulbourne has shown flashes of what he's capable of (17 points against Kentucky as a freshman, 18 against LSU as a sophomore), but so far his Vanderbilt career has been a bit of a disappointment. Though he dealt with a prolonged sophomore slump with his shooting, the Brooklyn native has shown that he's got range beyond the three-point line (35.5% as a freshman) and can be a valuable asset when it comes to stretching the floor. He's also got a solid jumping ability and the quickness to get into the lane against many defenders, but rarely puts the ball on the deck and dribbles in.

Defensively, he's big enough to guard opposing forwards well, and does so without drawing dumb fouls in one-on-one coverage. However, he's been a poor rebounder and often gets way out of position on the glass, leading to second-chance points for opponents and ticky-tack fouls to compensate. This is especially disappointing, since his long arms and great hops make him an exciting shot-blocker to watch, and should also help make him a better rebounder.

Goulbourne is a solid role player for the 'Dores, but he has the ability to be more. If he can gain some confidence and become more assertive on the court, he'll be an extremely valuable sixth man and provide some impact plays at the 3/4 in 2011. He needs to be aggressive inside and get his footwork together in the paint to provide true value to this team, and while he's got all the talent needed to be a perfect hybrid, his mental game hasn't gotten him there yet. Will 2011 be the year he turns the corner? I think he's due, and hopefully the increased competition behind him will ignite the basketball instincts he's got brewing deep inside his brain.

Rod Odom - Odom is the team's highest rated incoming freshman, and alongside Kyle Fuller could be the future of Vanderbilt basketball. At 6'9", he's being bred to eventually slide to power forward, but the lithe 18-year-old will start the season at his most comfortable position - the 3. His offensive game has already drawn much praise, and there's a hope that Odom's late blossoming game could make him a similar prospect to Jeffery Taylor - a decent recruit whose value skyrockets once the proper instincts are applied to his talent. 

"Hot Rod" has three-point range and the ability to get his shot off in traffic, and thanks to his height will be able to elevate on the perimeter and shoot over many of his SEC defenders. He's also a prolific driver, and his speed enables him to get into the paint easily for lay-ups. What's most promising, though, is his passing ability at full speed - Odom is great at drawing defenders to him with the ball and then finding the open man while on the run, and it is this ability - if he can develop it at the NCAA level - that will make him a contributor for the 'Dores.

However, he'll have to lock himself in the weight room first before earning major minutes, as he's just too skinny right now to handle the SEC's physical forwards. Questions have been raised about his lateral movement as well, and time will tell if the work he's putting in to his body can help his quickness. In all, Odom is a very interesting player who will have some highlight-reel highs and some disappointing lows for the Commodores in 2010-2011 - but in the end, many will expect him to be the future heir to Jeff Taylor's throne.

Joe Duffy -  Who doesn't like Joe Duffy? Duffman came to Vanderbilt as a walk-on and was an important role player for the undermanned 'Dores in 2009, playing in 19 games. He's got decent size, but his athleticism and talent plant him firmly on the end of the bench. With the team's current influx of SF/PF talent, the only meaningful game we get to see Duffy play may be Senior Night. Still, you can do a lot worse with your 12th man.