Damian Jones may be the best center in the SEC next season - even if Kentucky brings back their entire roster for another bite at the apple.
That's a lofty expectation, but few players in the NCAA showed the fifth gear that Jones unleashed once he got angry. The sophomore would tamp his frustrations down and ignite them in a hail of musket fire that swatted every shot out of the Commodore airspace, using his aggression to become a lockdown defender in the paint. While that excitement often tangled up his offensive game, it also gave college basketball fans a glimpse at just how good Damian Jones can be.
After scoring in double-digits in 19 of the first 20 games of the season, he finished the year by failing to score 10 points or more in six of the 'Dores final 15 contests. While that may lead stat-seekers to criticize his play, those numbers actually pinpoint Jones's unselfish play and dedication to making this team better. Strangely enough, Vandy often performed worse when their center was taking more shots in the paint. The Commodores went 8-10 this season when he attempted 10 or more field goals. That suggests that this team's balance - especially late in the season when Wade Baldwin IV and Matthew Fisher-Davis sprung to life - was a much bigger asset than Jones's scoring around the rim.
Jones thrived on his own, but he truly excelled when his teammates rose up to give him support on the wings. Let's take a look at the rising sophomore's 35 games in 2014-15.
Preseason expectations: Jones started the 2014-15 season by earning All-SEC honors. He was expected to be the best player on a young team of emerging freshmen.
2014-15 Stats: 29.1 mpg, 14.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 0.7 apg, 2.0 blocks, 56.1 FG%, 40.0 3PT%
2014-15 Comments: Jones was the most consistent Commodore on the floor, though his frustration with the refs could lead to inspired defensive play and forced shots on the other end of the floor. The sophomore cut down his foul rate in a big way (nearly one fewer foul per game despite playing more minutes) and stayed on the court to lead this team from the inside out. His PER rose into the 20s and his true shooting moved from 55 to 58 percent in the past year.
As a freshman, Jones's defense was his primary value to this team. He stepped up his offensive game to become a much more complete player for the Commodores in 2015.
Did Damian underperform, meet expectations, or exceed expectations? Met expectations. Like his frontcourt mate Luke Kornet, Jones suffered from uneven play as the season wore on. Some of that can be attributed to the team's inability to get him the ball in the post, but there were clearly some nights where Dame just didn't have "it." Even so, he was still Vanderbilt's #1 option on offense and their toughest defender on the other side of the floor.
2015-16 expectations: Conquest, War, Famine, and Death upon the rest of the SEC. Jones is primed to continue a list of high-impact Commodore centers that includes A.J. Ogilvy, Festus Ezeli, and Darius Coulibaly. He added a few new post moves for 2014-15 and really improved his play with his back to the basket this winter. If he can add a reliable hook shot, dream shake, or mid-range jumper then he'll be the ultimate complement for a Vanderbilt offense that can put three-point shooters at every other position on the floor.