I’ll admit: when I saw Vanderbilt’s starting lineup for the season opener against Marquette, I did a double take. What was Bryce Drew thinking, starting Nolan Cressler ahead of Joe Toye?
It turns out, though, that Drew knew what he was doing. We talked about Toye’s early-season struggles before, but Nolan Cressler went from being “oh God what is he doing in the game?” as a junior to a valuable role player as a senior. And that was something exactly none of us saw coming.
But maybe we should have. After transferring from Cornell, where he had been the leasing scorer (albeit on an awful team) as a sophomore, we heard a lot about how good Cressler looked in practice during his redshirt year. Then he struggled, but buried in that struggle was a 63.7 shooting percentage inside the arc — which was overshadowed by a 27.4 percentage outside, and Cressler took as many threes as twos as a junior.
As a senior, Cressler concentrated on what he did well. He took a greater percentage of his shots inside the arc, and in SEC play, he shot a mind-boggling 67.7 (!) percent on two-pointers — which, per Ken Pomeroy, was the highest percentage in the SEC in conference play. He played almost twice as many minutes, but he was much better about picking his spots, as his usage rate dropped from 20.6 percent of possessions to 17.2 percent. And his outside shot improved as well to 43.2 percent.
Even his defense got better. Cressler somehow notched three steals all season as a junior. While steals aren’t necessarily a great indicator of defensive ability — some guys get a lot of steals by being overly aggressive, but get burned a lot as a result — an active defender will usually come up with steals organically, by being in the right place when an opposing player dribbles the ball off his foot or throws a bad pass. So three steals all season is pretty bad. But as a senior, Cressler got 19 steals and also fouled a lot less; he committed 2.9 fouls per 40 minutes as a senior after averaging 4.4 as a junior.
It really felt like Cressler’s biggest adjustment moving from Cornell to Vanderbilt was in going from being the focal point of a bad Cornell offense to being a role player at Vanderbilt. Once Cressler learned to pick his spots and defer to Luke Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Riley LaChance, the finished product was a very valuable player for the Commodores. And that’s something we didn’t anticipate before the season.
Grade: A-minus. I’m admittedly grading on a curve here, but I can’t say anyone is unhappy with Cressler’s senior year performance. He will be missed.