Yesterday, Damian Jones joined Wade Baldwin IV in adding his name to the 2016 NBA Draft. Both have reportedly signed with an agent, removing any possibility that either one will return to Vanderbilt in 2016-17. What should Commodore fans expect to be the impact of these decisions?
Baldwin and Jones were less important than commonly assumed.
That's not to say that they were unimportant. But when many people talked about the 2015-16 Commodores, the discussion centered around "three NBA prospects" (Baldwin and Jones along with, presumably, Luke Kornet.) But advanced stats like Win Shares told a different story. Per Sports Reference, Baldwin contributed 4.5 Win Shares (2.5 in SEC play), and Jones contributed 3.8 Win Shares (2.1 in SEC play.)
For comparison, Jeff Roberson was worth 3.8 Win Shares (2.5 in SEC play.) In other words -- while Baldwin and Jones got all the attention, Roberson was roughly as valuable to the team. Luke Kornet and Matthew Fisher-Davis were each worth 1.5 Win Shares in SEC play; the rest of the team, combined, was worth 1.4. That's not really telling us anything we didn't already know: Vanderbilt in 2015-16 had a solid starting five, with very little production off the bench.
So, without Baldwin and Jones, Vanderbilt would have gone 7-11 in the SEC, right? Well... not quite. Their minutes would have gone to other players.
Replacing Jones is much easier to figure out.
Jones and departing (we think) senior Josh Henderson combined to play 35.1 minutes per game in SEC play; where do those minutes go? Well, a few of those will likely go to Luke Kornet, who played 29.4 minutes a game in conference play but could easily go up to 32-33 if he's not injured.
More importantly for Kornet, the departure of Jones means he can spend more time playing the five. As Kornet has developed at Vanderbilt, he's become what can accurately be described as a "stretch five," with the ability to score in the low post but also a dangerous enough jump shot to step out to the perimeter. Neither Kornet nor Jones is really a four, which led to the Vanderbilt offense getting bogged down frequently last season. So in that sense, losing Jones could actually wind up being a blessing in disguise for the Vanderbilt offense. (The defense is a different matter, of course. Having two 7-footers on the floor did a ton to bog down opposing offenses.)
Djery Baptiste, who redshirted in 2015-16, will likely get bench minutes at the five, replacing Henderson. Jones' minutes will likely go to a pair of young bigs in sophomore Samir Sehic and freshman Clevon Brown -- and while neither one is even remotely on Jones' plane right now, both are far better suited for the four than Jones (or Kornet.) Another option for Bryce Drew is to go small and play Jeff Roberson at the four, with Matthew Fisher-Davis and Joe Toye on the wings. But complicating that is...
Just who is the point guard next year?
There's Payton Willis, an incoming freshman who many have described as a combo guard. There's Riley LaChance, a two-guard trapped in a point guard's body. There's Camron Justice, who supposedly has the ability to play the point but has a skill set that's probably more suited for the two. Vanderbilt seems to be pretty well set at the other four positions, but with Baldwin gone, there appears to be a gaping hole at the point.
With the two early departures, Vanderbilt does have two scholarships available, and many have suggested that Vanderbilt could pursue a graduate transfer to play the point. On paper, this seems like a good idea; it gives Willis a year to develop as a backup and also would buy Bryce Drew some time to find a long-term solution at the point.
But I've argued frequently that there are structural impediments to Vanderbilt bringing in a graduate transfer. For one thing, as a smaller, private university, Vanderbilt has fewer graduate programs to choose from and thus it's less likely that a transfer would be able to find a program that isn't offered at his original university (unless, of course, he's transferring from another small university.) For another, coming to Vanderbilt as a graduate transfer requires getting admitted to a Vanderbilt graduate program, which is let's say not something that just anybody is going to be able to do. So this may not be a viable option.
If you really want to go outside the box, Drew might consider trying Jeff Roberson at the point; while his skill set is hardly ideal for the point, it seems at least as likely to work as playing Willis or LaChance there next year.
Jeff Roberson really is the key player for Vanderbilt in 2016-17.
This isn't to say that Roberson will be Vanderbilt's best player, but he's likely looking at transitioning from an uber-efficient role player as a sophomore to more of a featured role in the offense as a junior. That's a more difficult transition than commonly thought: Roberson will be going from being, frequently, Vanderbilt's fourth or fifth scoring option to its second or even first. You could argue that this will be Joe Toye or Matthew Fisher-Davis, but out of that group, Roberson has the skill set that's closest to "featured scorer" (though Toye showed flashes of it as a freshman, but he has much more development to go to reach that level.)
More than anything else, how that transition goes will determine how good Vanderbilt can be next season. If it goes well, Bryce Drew's first season could end in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament; if it goes poorly -- and nobody else steps up their game -- Vanderbilt's season will probably end in the NIT.