In the hours leading up to the 2012 NBA Draft, Jeffery Taylor appeared to be in great shape. The Swedish small forward had led Vanderbilt to a rare SEC Tournament title alongside Festus Ezeli and John Jenkins and projected to be the first Commodore to be selected in the first round since Will Perdue in 1988. Taylor's combination of athleticism, defense, rim-bending dunks, and a newly-developed three-point shot had turned him into one of the hottest commodities in black and gold that summer.
Now, three years later, he's out of work and waiting for another chance to prove himself in the NBA.
Taylor had been a triumph for Vanderbilt basketball and head coach Kevin Stallings. The Commodores went outside of their standard pipelines to chase the Swedish-born New Mexican and added the 44th-ranked high school player in the country to one of the best recruiting classes in school history. The athletic small forward made an immediate impact in Nashville and improved each year on campus. By the time he was a senior, he had added a dynamic shooting game (42.3 3PT%) to his suffocating defense and soaring play at the rim. He looked like a perfect fit for an NBA that valued "three-and-D" players on the wing.
However, Taylor wasn't the first Commodore to hear his name called in New York City that night. That honor went to Jenkins, who went 23rd to the Atlanta Hawks. Seven picks later, Ezeli was selected by the Golden State Warriors with the final pick of the first round. Both Jenkins and Ezeli earned guaranteed contracts thanks to their first-round status. Taylor, who was drafted with the very next pick at 31, had to work his way onto an NBA roster.
That mission was complicated by his landing spot in Charlotte. The Bobcats (now Hornets) took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist 29 spots earlier - a Kentucky product who had dueled with Taylor throughout the 2011-12 season. Kidd-Gilchrist didn't just play the same position as Taylor, he also relied on same NBA-ready skill to propel him to playing time; his defense. Despite a massive rebuilding project in Carolina, Jeffery Taylor faced an uphill battle to claim a starting spot on one of the worst teams in the league. When it came to playing time in Charlotte, team owner Michael Jordan was always going to default to the player he spent a #2 overall pick on rather than the second round pick who followed him.
Taylor's adjustment to the league was a volatile one. The Bobcats handled his minutes like a yo-yo, playing him anywhere from zero to 27 minutes each night in his first two months as a professional. Kidd-Gilchrist, on the other hand, averaged nearly 27 minutes per game over the same stretch. Still, the Vanderbilt product found a way to make a statement when given extended playing time. He averaged 10.4 points in the games where he played 30 minutes or more and made 34.4 percent of his three-point attempts - a solid mark for an NBA rookie.
Taylor came on strong at the end of his first season and began to parlay that experience into more minutes as a sophomore. However, any momentum that he built in 2013 came to a crashing halt on December 20th. Taylor ruptured his Achilles tendon in a game against the Detroit Pistons, effectively shelving him for a full year. That offseason, during his rehabilitation process, things got even worse.
Taylor was arrested in East Lansing, Michigan on September 26 and charged with one count each of domestic assault, assault, and malicious destruction of property. He had been visiting a girlfriend near the Michigan State campus when an argument took over the tail end of a night filled with alcohol. According to police reports, Taylor shoved the woman into a hotel hallway where she struck her head on a door. He also grabbed her by the arm and punched a hole in a nearby wall. When police arrived, Taylor was belligerent and refused to cooperate. The Hornets suspended him indefinitely after hearing the news. The NBA launched a full-scale investigation into the event.
The league, led by new Commissioner Adam Silver, wanted no part a tainted reputation when it came to violence against women. In a move almost certainly tied to the NFL's lax policies on similar arrests, Silver and the NBA suspended Taylor for 24 games - more than 29 percent of the 2014-15 season. It was an unprecedented punishment when it came to domestic violence in the NBA.
Taylor showed humility in accepting his punishment without appeal, despite his union's assurances that they would take up his case. He issued this statement in the midst of a public apology to both the Hornets and the woman he assaulted:
My actions were wrong, and I don't care to appeal a decision that was based off my actions being wrong. So I respect the league's decision on the suspension, and I will take all of the necessary steps to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.
He also swore off alcohol and rededicated himself to a comeback on the court. The second piece of that puzzle would be tougher than the first. Taylor is a basketball player who relies on his athleticism, whether it's to keep opponents in front of him on defense or to make cuts to the rim and then elevate for monster dunks on the other end of the court. He had to adjust his game to compensate from the still-healing lower leg injury that cut basketball out of his 2014 plans. He also had to find a new role on a Charlotte team that had evolved while he was on the sidelines.
The Hornets had developed into a playoff team in 2014 with Taylor on the bench. Kidd-Gilchrist, despite injury issues of his own, became a serviceable, if flawed, starter at small forward. The Vanderbilt product had to fight for playing time on a team with big aspirations when he returned from his suspension in 2014-15. His minutes fell to a career-low 14.6 per game and though Charlotte gave him an extended tryout towards the end of the season, increasing his minutes as a playoff berth became increasingly unlikely, the 26-year old failed to impress.
The Hornets had seen enough. They declined Taylor's qualifying offer last Tuesday, making the 26-year old an unrestricted free agent. His quest to keep his spot in the NBA will be a difficult one. He now carries two labels that teams want to avoid; "injury-prone" and "domestic abuser." He's only played in 55 of Charlotte's last 164 games, limiting his chance to showcase the skills that helped make him a Vanderbilt legend.
Taylor, at the very least, appears to have his head in the right spot. Here's what he told the Boston Globe earlier this year in the middle of his comeback with the Hornets.
You grow stronger as a person and adversity builds character. You learn that with faith and having the right people around you and your own personal strength, there’s not a lot you can’t overcome. It’s definitely a high-pressure job [playing in the NBA], you’re expected to perform every night. You have all the other stuff that doesn’t concern basketball that you have to deal with as well, it’s a lot. But we’re definitely all blessed to play basketball for a living and do what we love for a living. I don’t think anybody sees it as something that is hard to deal with. It comes with the territory.
That's the attitude he'll need to overcome the obstacles that fate and the young athlete himself have thrown on the path to NBA success. Taylor will have to prove that he's moved on from the injury and the personal issues that derailed a promising start to his professional career. There are teams who are willing to gamble on a young wing who has shown the ability to play suffocating defense while adding a shooting threat on the perimeter. However, Taylor isn't the only young reclamation project out there, and his physical and emotional baggage are sure to scare some suitors away. With the exciting start to free agency over, the teams that are willing to rehabilitate Jeffery Taylor will begin to emerge. The question now is whether or not the Vanderbilt alum can make good on his potential and grow from his mistakes.