Barring a near miracle, Jeff Roberson’s career as a Vanderbilt Commodore will come to an end this week. And that, for lack of a better word, sucks.
Roberson transformed from an overlooked three-star prospect to a vital, do-it-all starter in just his first season in Nashville. By the time he was a senior, he’d developed into an All-SEC talent who proved he could lead his team after losing playmakers like Damian Jones, Wade Baldwin, and Luke Kornet. While his final year in black and gold will end with a losing record and a long list of disappointing losses, his late-stage breakout has set the stage for a second act in the NBA.
But you won’t see Roberson’s name in the first round of any 2018 mock drafts. At 6’6, he’s a bit undersized for a small forward and way undersized for a power forward — the position he’s held down at Vanderbilt the past two seasons. At first glance, he looks like the typical four-year college starter who struggles to make an impact at the next level, but Roberson has always played bigger than his stature suggests. Anyone who’s tracked his growth from 2014 knows he can be an asset in an NBA that’s evolved to cater to his three-and-D skillset in recent years.
What does Roberson bring to the table?
After a downturn in 2016-17, Roberson has lived up to his reputation as an efficient shooter who can space the floor with his three-point shot and take advantage of overzealous defenders with drives to the hoop. He’s made more than 39% of his threes over the course of a four-year career, including a 40.3% mark this winter while shooting nearly six threes per game. He’s also been more efficient than ever inside the arc, making more than 54 percent of his two pointers in 2017-18.
That last number is remarkable given his status on this year’s Commodore team. Roberson’s first three years on campus were spent as a complementary piece behind other future NBA players. As a senior, he and Riley LaChance have shared the load as the team’s top scoring option, taking 10.6 shots apiece. LaChance’s streakiness, Matthew Fisher-Davis’s season-ending shoulder injury, and the up-and-down play of contributors like Saben Lee, Joe Toye, and D’Jery Baptiste have only served to highlight his consistency even further.
He’s stepped up to lead in an uneven season at Vanderbilt. Bryce Drew’s 2017-18 team was simultaneously rebuilding (five underclassmen play at least 13 minutes per game and the greatest recruiting class in program history is coming this summer) and veteran heavy (Roberson, LaChance, and Fisher-Davis all exhaust their NCAA eligibility this March). That lack of an identity has cost this team late in some heartbreaking losses (against Kentucky, USC, and Middle Tennessee), but its greatest moments have come courtesy of Roberson.
He had 48 points, 18 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks in back-to-back wins over Mississippi State and Florida. He needed just nine shots to score 23 points in the team’s defeat against Kentucky. In the team’s toughest contest of the season, a road game at SEC co-champs Auburn, he posted a 30-point, 10-rebound double-double while needing just 17 shots to get there.
That kind of clutch performance has helped dispel the issues that dogged him in the past. He disappeared on the offensive end in Vandy’s NCAA Tournament loss to Northwestern last spring, scoring just four points in 30 minutes. In 2016’s play-in game, he made just one of his seven shots in a three-point performance against Wichita State. He (probably) won’t get a chance to rectify those disappointing showings in 2018, but a solid SEC Tournament run would further prove he’s reliable in the clutch now that he’s a No. 1 option for a high-major team.
Why would teams avoid Jeff Roberson in the NBA Draft?
One of the biggest concerns about Roberson’s game translating to the NBA is his ability to create his own shot. Vanderbilt’s offense often stagnated as players struggled to collapse defenses with drives into the paint. Roberson wasn’t without fault there, as solid defenders were able to bottle him up, either forcing him into help defenders who could swallow up his shot or force him to pass the ball back out to the perimeter.
While that is something that won’t improve as an NBA rookie, his current skillset makes him a plug-and-play asset immediately. Roberson’s 64.9 true shooting percentage ranks fifth in the conference; the rest of the top five are all true power forwards who are at least three inches taller than him and none of whom can approach his volume of three-point shooting. That, coupled with his ability to drain corner, kick-out threes, will help him carve a niche starting on his first day with his pro team.
However, Roberson’s steady defense may not be enough to fulfill the “and-D” part of the equation. Vanderbilt has relied on him to contain everyone from shooting guards to centers in his four years with the program. His numbers have varied wildly over that span, though often for reasons outside of his control.
His defensive rating peaked his sophomore year at 99.5 (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions), a season where he handled small forwards and funneled drives into a defensive forest led by seven-foot shot blockers Jones and Kornet. When Jones departed two years ago, Roberson’s assignment switched to power forwards, and while Kornet remained to erase shots, his rating rose to 101.0. This winter, without a reliable big man to provide help defense and, that number has climbed all the way to 110.7, the worst mark of his career.
That’s mostly the function of a team defense that’s fallen considerably in 2017-18, but there are times when taller assignments are able to shoot over him or use their bulk to back him down. While Roberson’s future in the NBA is handling three-guards — faster players who can abuse his good-but-not-great lateral quickness — those small forwards will average around 6’8, depending on small-ball lineups. Roberson has been able to step up to the challenge in college, but he hasn’t excelled to the point where his defense won’t raise a question in the pros.
Finally, at 6’6, Roberson’s ability to fight through traffic and pull down rebounds will be mitigated against the much taller big men of the NBA. While he’s pulled down a team-leading 7.2 rebounds per game, his rebound rate of 11.6% ranks just 22nd among SEC players. In short, he’s the best of a bad group of rebounders at Vanderbilt, which suggests his double-double potential won’t translate.
Is there anyone who provides proof Roberson can translate his talent to the NBA?
Roberson’s easiest analog — to me, at least — is someone like Utah’s Jae Crowder. The former Marquette graduate who fell to the Cavaliers’ 34th pick in 2012 before catching on with the Mavericks and eventually exploding into three-and-D stardom with the Celtics from 2015 to 2017 (in fairness, the less said about his 2017-18 with the Cavaliers and Jazz, the better). Crowder was also an undersized swing forward at 6’6, though his 235-pound frame gave him a bit more bulk to better handle burly power forwards.
Crowder’s sophomore season ended with Big East Player of the Year honors. Roberson won’t be similarly recognized due to Vandy’s objectively bad season, but their breakout season numbers suggest the two players shared some similarities in terms of their overall impact.
Jeff Roberson vs. Jae Crowder -- Final years in college
|Jae Crowder, 2011-12||32.9||49.80%||60.20%||5.1||34.50%||73.50%||8.4||2.1||2.5||1||1.3||17.5||59.80%||125.7||85.9|
|Jeff Roberson, 2017-18||34.3||48.20%||54.70%||4.8||40.30%||85.20%||7.2||1.5||0.9||0.4||1.6||17||63.90%||129.5||110.7|
Roberson is the better shooter. Crowder was a significantly better defender. It’s also worth noting Roberson’s SEC and out-of-conference slate gave him a significantly tougher level of competition between these two seasons.
Crowder’s breakout year showcases what made him a borderline first round talent. He was a much more complete player than Roberson currently is, and he was one year younger. Couple his second round status with Roberson’s bad luck of coming out in a loaded draft year, and you can understand why he isn’t a presence on mock boards as the months build to the 2018 NBA Draft.
That’s a mistake. Roberson’s career at Vanderbilt has been a testament to his flexibility, growth, and durability. He’s been both his team’s glue guy and No. 1 option in an up-and-down career, but his breakout senior season is proof not only of his talent, but his room to grow.
Jeff Roberson has fine tuned his shooting to become one of the NCAA’s most talented scorers and grow from role player to star. That, coupled with his pestering defense and dedication, should make him the next vessel in Vanderbilt’s NBA pipeline.