Ted Skuchas. A.J. Ogilvy. Festus Ezeli. And now, Damian Jones.
The talented Texan is building another link in the chain of great Commodore big men after a strong freshman season in Nashville. Jones led the team in rebounding and blocks in his first year of NCAA play and recorded five double-doubles en route to an SEC All-Freshman Team selection. While he was not as polished as Ogilvy, as physically intimidating as Ezeli, or as goofably enjoyable as Skuchas were as freshmen, he showed all the potential to be a special player for Kevin Stallings in the next three years.
Jones was active around the rim from day one of his Vanderbilt tenure, showed off a big vertical leap and great timing that made him a shot-erasing threat in the paint. He stepped into the starting lineup four games into his career and then took on an even bigger role up front when veteran center Josh Henderson went down with a torn ACL in early December. Once the calendar flipped over to 2014, the only limit on Jones's playing time was his awkward relationship with fouls. He played at least 24 minutes per game - and at most 41 (against A&M) - in conference play.
Now, he'll pair with Henderson to give the Commodores an effective and diverse platoon in the paint.
Josh Henderson (6'11", 240 lbs), Senior: Henderson's biggest problem at Vanderbilt has been his inability to stay healthy. The big, smooth center has only played one full season through his four years in Nashville thanks to foot and knee injuries that have kept him from the court. Last season, a torn ACL and MCL took him from the active roster only eight games into the season.
"Hendo" was beginning to put things together before his knee injury. He averaged 10.5 points and four rebounds per game from the bench in the final four games before his ACL tapped out. He brings a bit more finesse up front for the Commodores, and his ability to make jumpers outside of the paint will give this team valuable flexibility up front. While he's still not a plus defender or remarkable shot blocker, he's still a legitimate SEC big man who can give opponents problems as long as he stays healthy.
Damian Jones (6'10", 248 lbs), Sophomore: Jones broke onto the scene as a true freshman last season to put a rock solid foundation underneath Kevin Stallings's rebuilding plans. The young baller showed that he could contribute at both ends of the floor right off the bat when he scored 19 points (on only eight field goal attempts) and pulled down seven rebounds in the season opener against Georgia State. That set the tone for a breakout year that has DraftExpress calling him a first-round draft pick for 2016.
Like Ezeli before him, Jones is a center who prefers to do his scoring in post-up situations near the rim. He does a good job of getting low and establishing position before exploding towards the rim for a powerful finish. He made 50% of his shots on possessions that started with his back to the basket, and that number figures to improve now that he's stronger and more experienced. He plays solid man-to-man defense, but he shined as a help defender last season. He had several highlight reel plays where he rotated from his man to meet a driving opponent at the basket and send his shot back in the opposite direction.
Jones will have the chance to prove that he's the real deal as a sophomore. The Commodores will need every ounce of him if they are going to make it back to the NCAA Tournament next March.