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Progress Review: Steve Tchiengang

Steve Tchiengang has got "fan favorite" written all over him. Between the hustle plays, the tough defense, and his smiling reaction after every hard foul, it's tough not to like Vanderbilt's resident Cameroonian. Tchiengang shone in the second half of the season, providing the interior toughness that the team needed and recording some breakout games that helped propel the Commodores to victory.

Tchiengang arrived on campus as a part of Coach Kevin Stallings's most hyped class of recruits. Thanks to Andre Walker's absence, he was forced into the rotation for heavy minutes as a freshman during the team's 19-12 season. Steve's adjustment to the college game was rocky at times - he often failed to play to his strengths and was over-matched outside the paint against top NCAA teams. In 2010, Stevie Thunder* focused more on staying in the paint, locking down on defense, and becoming more of a complementary piece of the offense. As a result, his efficiency on the court became a strength rather than a weakness.

Like Lance Goulbourne, Tchiengang's ceiling is likely only as a spot starter in 2010-2011 and possibly beyond. However, thanks to his bulk, the big African could be pressed into service more based on match ups and his size and strength advantages over incumbent starter Andre Walker. As a result - and due to the need of rebounding that the team displayed in 2010 - his development may be one of the most important storylines on the Vanderbilt bench next year.

Observational: Stevie Thunder started the season with a whimper, but as he acclimated to his role he gained confidence, and that shone through on the court. He played his best ball in the most important stretch of the season, coming on strong in the second half of the SEC schedule. Based on his stronger play and the team's need for defensive rebounding, Tchiengang's minutes more than doubled and his play improved significantly.

Though he was limited by poor positioning and ball handling, the big forward showcased tough interior defense and a solid shooting touch. It sometimes took him a while to find his spot in offensive sets, but as long as he wasn't trying to back his man down in the post, he was a solid option to keep the offense running smoothly. He had a better understanding of his role and took mostly good, open shots without forcing much from the outside. His jumper was better than his free throw shooting would suggest, but as the fourth or fifth option on the court offensively, he was rarely called on to pick up much of the scoring burden.

Tchiengang personified the "hustle player" on the court. He worked hard, played smart, and generally helped the team hold leads when playing minutes off the bench. However, he often fell out of favor with the refs, and his posturing/yelling did not do him any favors when it came to drawing calls later in the season. Tchiengang played with his heart on his sleeve and - and that heart was mostly filled with fouling aggression. His complaints often fell on deaf ears and the young forward was probably on the receiving end of more questionable block/charge calls than any other SEC player.

Statistically Speaking: Tchiengang's emergence as a key player began with 15 minutes in the second Tennessee game of the season. From that point on, he earned double-digit minutes in all but two of the team's remaining games. The spike in minutes led to a productive increase in statistics:

2009 OOC *11-3 10.1 2.1 58.6% 1.2 64.7% 0.2 33.3% 3.3 0.9 1.2 2.1 0.3 0.9 0.3 0.2 0.2 1.7
2010 SEC 1st half *6-2 8.1 1.6 61.5% 1.1 55.6% 0.1 100.0% 2.8 0.5 0.9 1.4 0.0 0.8 0.0 0.1 0.3 2.4
2010 SEC 2nd half *6-2 17.8 2.9 43.5% 2.6 61.9% 0.6 40.0% 4.4 1.5 2.9 4.4 0.4 1.8 0.2 0.1 0.0 2.9
2010 postseason *1-3 11.3 3.3 30.0% 1.3 50.0% 1.3 25.0% 3.0 1.0 1.7 2.7 0.0 1.3 0.0 0.7 0.0 2.7

Tchiengang's bulk helped him rebound at a productive rate, but his lack of explosive athleticism meant that he rarely blocked shots - however, in a front line with A.J. Ogilvy, Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, and Andre Walker, he wasn't needed to contest shots as much. Though his shooting decreased, his increased role on the court likely pushed him into more shots -and allowed defenses to adjust to his shooting. My original theory was that in extended minutes, Steve shot at a greater rate - suggesting that more playing time will lead to a non-linear increase in shots taken and a lower shooting percentage. However, the stats from his freshman year don't seem to bear that out:

2008-2009 17.3 3.4 32.9% 1.3 71.9% 1.6 30.8% 3.6 0.9 2.2 3.2 0.5 1.2 0.4 0.4 2.8
2009-2010 11.6 2.3 50.7% 1.5 60.8% 0.4 38.5% 3.4 0.9 1.6 2.5 0.2 1.1 0.2 0.2 2.2

Though his shooting was poor in 2009, his minutes per shot in 2009 (5.08) was similar to his best stretch of his sophomore season (5.06). In the midst of his breakout(-ish) second half, this number rose to 6.13, when he shot a mediocre 43.5%. In more playing time as a sophomore, he actually shot less. This probably had an impact in his increased efficiency and was part of why Tchiengang earned extra playing time.

Also notable between years is the shift in shooting philosophy. Big men with a good outside game are a valuable commodity, but Tchiengang elevated his play on the court by passing up the three ball. This helped improve his overall shooting numbers - though the decrease in free throw percentage, especially with lower minutes that should manage fatigue, seems odd.

Progression, Regression, or Static?: Progression. After a rough start, Tchiengang played a smarter game in 2009-2010. He was the team's muscle inside, and despite limited quickness, was a solid defender that understood his role and played it well. However, he'll need more seasoning to have a consistent impact in the SEC - and that includes better shooting and better work boxing out and preventing opposing offensive rebounds.

At the start of the season, seeing Tchiengang with the ball was a nervous sight for many Commodores fans. By the time the SEC Tournament rolled around, the big man's play was much less nerve wracking. He came to campus with the reputation as a smart player, and after a year of competition at the college level, showed that he has the capacity to adjust his style on the court to get the most out of his athleticism. The biggest question that remains is how much the Cameroonian has to grow. His progression in 2010 seems to suggest that he could see a few double-doubles over the next two years in Nashville, but is that a proper projection for him? Or did we see the best Steve Tchiengang we're going to see at Vanderbilt over the course of eight SEC games this season?