David Przybyszewski. Ted Skuchas. A.J. Ogilvy. Festus Ezeli. Damian Jones. It's safe to say that Kevin Stallings has increased the quality of his centers in recent years.
Jones continues a chain of talented big men that have locked down the paint in Memorial Gym. By the time he's finished his three-year career at Vanderbilt, he may go down as one of the best centers in school history. Draft Express rates him as the third-best athlete in his class and currently projects him as the #16 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft. If he can continue his growth as a post player, then Jones could be the Commodores first ever Draft Lottery pick.
However, it might be tough for the junior to live up to expectations. Opponents will be keying in on him more than ever, which means he'll have to find a way to power through defensive rotations and pass his way out of double teams to keep the Vandy offense running smoothly. Fortunately, a roster stocked with three-point shooters will keep opponents from swarming to the paint to stop Jones's pivoting, high-octane post moves.
He'll have backup this winter. Josh Henderson has been cleared for a sixth season with the team after gaining a medical redshirt this summer. Behind him, true freshman D'Jery Baptiste is a 6'10" statue that was chiseled out of pure potential. If he plays, he'll rack up rebounds and fouls at a similar rate, and it will be delightful to watch.
The Incumbent/Potential Lottery Pick: Damian Jones
Jones came to Vanderbilt as a four-star recruit, but few scouts were able to gauge how effective his post game would be as a true freshman. He was a bright spot on that 2013-14 team that went 16-17 when he scored 11.3 points per game on 54.3% shooting. He followed that up by putting the NCAA on notice with an All-SEC performance in his sophomore season. With Jones leading the way and keeping his shooters from getting suffocated by double-teams, Vanderbilt won 21 games and earned a postseason bid for the first time in three years.
He started the 2015 season slowly, but a pair of 17-point, 10-rebound games against Wake Forest and Kansas have shown that Vandy's junior center is still growing. Jones has always been a strong finisher at the rim, but he's helped to refine his game with a smooth hook shot that has become the calling card for big men who develop their craft in Nashville. He's still working on passing his way out of double-teams to find open shooters, and you can see his development paying off this season. As a freshman, he recorded an assist on just 2.3 percent of his teammates' field goals. Last year, that mark moved up to 6.2 percent. In 2015-16? That rate rises to 13 percent. Don't let anyone ever tell you that Damian Jones isn't willing to learn.
Defensively, he's strong and long enough to keep his position in the post without getting backed down by the league's centers. However, he's most exciting when he's moving towards a shooter as a help defender:
The Returning Veteran: Josh Henderson
Henderson is a long, skilled center whose biggest obstacle as a basketball player has been staying healthy. The lithe seven-footer has only played one injury-free season for the Commodores - an inefficient sophomore year where he scored 6.6 points per game but failed to develop into a true post scorer. Three years later, that around-the-rim scoring still isn't there, but Hendo supplements that weakness with an array of soft hook shots and midrange jumpers that give this team a third seven-foot scoring option between Jones and Luke Kornet.
He'll be a key player for this team off the bench, especially if foul trouble arises for Vandy's big men. He's played about 12 minutes per game so far, which will fluctuate depending on matchups and Kevin Stallings's penchant for small ball. Henderson provides all the defensive benefits of having a seven-footer in the paint, but he'll also give this team a soft touch inside and the leadership that comes with wearing black and gold for the past five years.
The X-Factor: D'Jery Baptiste
First things first, D'Jery Baptiste learned English by listening to George Strait songs. This giant Haitian is somehow more country than Ted Skuchas.
That's probably where the Skuchas comparisons end and Festus Ezeli comparisons begin. Like Ezeli, Baptiste is a raw, athletic center who will begin his freshman year with an NCAA-ready body. Also like Festus, he's a foreign player who didn't play organized basketball before high school and only spent a few years in America before having to make a college decision. And finally, like Festus, he's a dunking, shot-blocking machine who is going to foul anyone that steps into the paint for the first two or three years of his college career.
This tiny Hulk has two basketball skills that he can apply at the NCAA level right now, and that's monster blocks and monster dunks. Everything else needs work, from his shooting and his ball handling to his defensive rotations and his passing. He won't play in 2015-16, barring an unforeseen emergency, but that will prime him for a big debut next winter.