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Progress Review: Festus Ezeli

Festus Ezeli's jump to competitive basketball has been well documented. The big Nigerian played his first competitive ball on an AAU team while in high school and displayed raw athleticism to match his NBA size. However, he also showed that there was a sea of basketball knowledge he would have to swim through before he could be a proficient NCAA center. Despite his lack of experience, Ezeli was considered a top 150 recruit and is regarded as one of the Commodores' best NBA Draft prospects.

In his third year at Vanderbilt, Ezeli showed some strides in picking up important minutes behind A.J. Ogilvy. He made fewer dumb fouls and was no longer a magnet for three second violations like he had been in his redshirt freshman year. Though he wasn't much of a threat from anywhere outside of five feet from the basket (including the free throw line), his defense looked better and he controlled the ball better as he adjusted to the college game.

Observational: Ezeli's bread and butter was his defense and rebounding, though he often found himself out of position on both counts. He has the strength to play face up defense against the SEC's best big men, but still had trouble with biting on shot fakes and getting in foul trouble. His body control was better in 2010, but he still fouled too much to be a consistent force against teams with elite centers or power forwards. Still, his blocks were highlight reel fodder and he showed that he could average three per game with starters' minutes.

The other issue that kept him from greater minutes was his lack of range and abysmal free throw shooting. Opposing defenses knew that they could go right after Ezeli with hard fouls when he had the ball around the basket. Hitting consecutive free throws was cause for celebration for the big man, and while he seemed to be developing some post moves, including an effective hook shot, he was still largely ineffective when putting the ball on the court and working inside. As a result, Festus did most of his scoring on put backs and lobs inside for high percentage shots. If he can add an up-and-under move or improve his hook shot out to a twelve foot range, he would present a new dimension in the Commodore offense.

Festus seemed to gain composure as the season wore on, playing steadier in the interior and hitting more of his free throws. However, he was eclipsed on the depth chart by Steve Tchiengang as the first big off the bench thanks to his still-developing skill set. A lot will be riding on his ability to hone his offense into a solid short-range threat while continuing to learn how to control his body and use his considerable athletic ability to better defend elite big men.

Statistically Speaking: Ezeli stepped up in the out-of-conference schedule, but hit a wall once the tougher SEC games rolled around. His shooting, rebounding, and blocks all declined despite similar minutes in the first half of SEC play. As previously noted, Steve Tchiengang cut into Festus's minutes with his strong play over the last half of league play, and Ezeli's slide contributed to this - even with a reduced role, the big man couldn't regain his OOC form.

2009 OOC *10-3 13.3 2.2 3.7 58.3% 0.8 2.3 33.3% 5.1 1.0 2.5 3.5 0.1 1.3 0.06 0.1 1.8 2.1
2010 SEC 1st Half *6-2 13.6 1.1 2.3 50.0% 0.4 1.8 21.4% 2.6 0.8 2.4 3.1 0.0 0.6 0.00 0.4 1.0 2.5
2010 SEC 2nd Half *7-4 11.3 1.1 2.2 50.0% 0.8 1.4 60.0% 3.0 1.0 1.9 2.9 0.2 1.1 0.17 0.2 1.0 2.1

While many of his stats declined, Ezeli was able to increase his shooting at the free throw line (with fewer attempts) and controlled the ball better in the paint, leading to fewer turnovers and even a couple of rare assists (his three in 2009-2010 was two more than he had in all 2008-2009). Festus will never be a good passing big man, but if he can cut down on his turnovers he'll be less of a black hole in the paint.

Ezeli's rebound rate dropped from one every 3.8 minutes to one every 3.9 minutes. His block rate dropped from one every 7.4 minutes to to one every 11.3 minutes. It's tough to find many positives for Festus's progression statistically over the course of the season, even though his sophomore year has to be considered a step up from where he was as a redshirt freshman.

Progression, Regression, or Static?: Remained static. Ezeli progressed from his freshman year to his sophomore year, but over the course of the season it's tough to say that he got noticeably better on the court from the start of the season to its end. Festus is coming along as a player, but progressing slowly, partially due to a lack of urgency to get him on the court with a standout player in A.J. Ogilvy in front of him. While the Commodores have been patient with the big Nigerian over the past two years, he'll have a brand new sense of urgency awaiting him from Vanderbilt fans in 2010-2011.

Festus will be thrown into the fire in his junior year despite not showing the offensive presence to be a mainstay on the court. With incoming freshman Josh Henderson as the only other true center on the roster, he'll be Vanderbilt's go-to big in the pivot. Hopefully he'll be spending the entirely of the summer working on post moves and increasing his shooting range to add a new dimension to his game. Though he'll never be a go-to scorer, he could average 8-10 points per game with a solid post move and his usual put-back and dunk production.

2011 will be Ezeli's most important year, both for the Commodores and for his draft stock. He's still a big mound of potential, but if he can't make the leap as a junior scouts will start to question when he's going to put it together. On a team lacking low-post scoring and defense, he'll be given multiple chances to produce. Whether or not he can capitalize on them will depend on what he gets done in the gym this summer.