How Did We Get Here?
Of course, regular Anchor of Gold readers know the story. For those of you who don’t read this blog regularly (shame on you), let’s go for a quick rundown.
Back in November 2017, Bryce Drew signed the best recruiting class in Vanderbilt history, with the two highest-rated recruits in program history (Darius Garland and Simi Shittu) along with what was regarded as a pretty good prospect in Aaron Nesmith. He whiffed on adding a couple more five-stars in the spring (namely, Romeo Langford and EJ Montgomery), but there was excitement around the program going into 2018-19 that hadn’t been seen in years. And early on, things looked good, with a 4-0 start including a road win over a Top 25 USC team.
And then Darius Garland got hurt. And then the team went 0-18 in the SEC. And then, Bryce Drew was unceremoniously dumped by Athletic Directory Malcolm Turner, who’d been on the job for about a month at that point.
Drew was replaced by Jerry Stackhouse, who also saw his team’s best player (Nesmith) lost for the season pretty early on. And while advanced metrics like KenPom and SRS pegged Stackhouse’s first team as actually being worse than the 2018-19 team, particularly immediately after Nesmith was lost — when the team promptly averaged 56 ppg over a seven-game stretch and saw a truly hideous shooting performance against Tennessee that saw the team, for the first time since the implementation of the three-point shot, go an entire game without making one — because three of Vanderbilt’s eleven wins on the season came against SEC teams, including two in the final week of the regular season, most fans came out of the season feeling better about the direction of the program under Stackhouse than they did after three years of Drew.
That’s in spite of the fact that, at least compared to Drew, recruiting under Stackhouse has only been so-so. The Commodores signed four players and added a transfer in the offseason, but the recruiting class only ranked 58th nationally. On the other hand, Stackhouse’s coaching chops appear to be much better than Drew’s, and unlike in recent years, there wasn’t much of an exodus of players out of the program.
|Aaron Nesmith||35.7||23||4.9||0.9||0.9||1.4||NBA Draft|
|Saben Lee||32.9||18.6||3.5||4.2||0.3||1.5||NBA Draft|
|Matthew Moyer||12.2||2||2.2||0.2||0.4||0.4||transfer/George Washington|
Vanderbilt actually returns 60.9 percent of its possession-minutes from 2019-20, which you might not realize if you only focused on the two stars who left. Aaron Nesmith’s contribution to the total is a bit muted based on him only playing in 14 games last season, but Saben Lee effectively took over the offense in his absence, and now both are gone.
Still, that focus misses the forest for the trees: basically everyone else that Vanderbilt expected to contribute in 2020-21 is back. The Commodores lose Matthew Moyer, who never seemed to find much of a role in two seasons, and they lose Oton Jankovic, who played 130 minutes — fewer than walk-on Braelee Albert. And that’s it.
|Scotty Pippen Jr.||Soph.||6'1"||170||29.8||12.8||2.8||3.6||0.1||1.1|
Vanderbilt got a bit of a blessing in disguise early last season, when senior Clevon Brown was lost for the season to injury. Brown played in nine games, during which time he was Vanderbilt’s leading rebounder and shot-blocker (and fourth-leading scorer), before being lost for the season. Brown might have been worth an extra win or two last season, but he was granted a medical hardship and is returning for this season — and assuming he’s healthy, he might be Vanderbilt’s best player. At the very least, he is the team’s most impactful defender.
Three rising sophomores could also look to make a jump this season. Dylan Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. both got into Vanderbilt’s starting lineup immediately thanks to the depleted roster. Both started 31 games and looked pretty good — on one end of the floor. Disu, a top 150 recruit in 2019, made an impact as a defender and rebounder, but his offensive game wasn’t quite there yet — 173 of his 229 shot attempts came from beyond the arc, and he shot just 29.5 percent on them. Pippen, the son of the NBA Hall of Famer of the same name, showed some ability as a driver and creator and also shot 36 percent from three-point range, but seemed to struggle on the defensive end. The third returning member of last year’s freshman class, Jordan Wright, looked like more of a hustle player and future glue guy, but still has some room for improvement — especially as a shooter, where he went 8-of-53 beyond the arc.
Vanderbilt also has some veterans returning. Senior Maxwell Evans came out of nowhere to drop 31 points in a home win over LSU and also scored 20 in the regular-season finale, a win over South Carolina; it seems a bit telling that easily his two best performances of the season came in two of Vanderbilt’s three SEC wins. Aside from that, Evans averaged 7.1 ppg on the season and figures to be a role player, at least depending on the improvement from the sophomores and the impact of the team’s newcomers. Ejike Obinna, in his fourth year in the program, is a good rebounder and can score occasionally on stick-backs and dunks, but isn’t as much of a shot-blocker as his size (6’10”/243) would imply.
The Commodores also saw freshman walk-on Braelee Albert start six games and play 284 minutes last season, though without the roster issues that plagued last year’s team, he doesn’t figure to play as much this season.
|DJ Harvey||Jr.||6'6"||235||49||transfer/Notre Dame|
With seven newcomers on the roster, including two transfers who redshirted last season, Vanderbilt actually has a full complement of scholarship players on the roster this year — and if Issac McBride’s waiver for immediate eligibility is granted, Vanderbilt would have 13 scholarship players eligible (meaning, not counting transfers sitting out) for the first time since 2011-12.
The transfers are, in fact, the first place to look for an immediate impact. D.J. Harvey was a top-50 recruit out of high school who started 29 games at Notre Dame in 2018-19 and averaged 10.7 ppg, though his shooting percentages weren’t great. Still, given that Harvey was a starter at an ACC school, he’s probably one of the most obvious impact transfers in the SEC and should start right away. Quentin Millora-Brown started 27 games at Rice in 2018-19, as a freshman, and has good size (6’10”/229) and showed some upside as a shot-blocker, though his offensive game needs work. Issac McBride transferred from Kansas before playing a game and was granted immediate eligibility earlier this week.
Vanderbilt’s freshman class isn’t highly regarded, but it did appear to address some needs. Tyrin Lawrence is the highest-rated player in the class and has the ability to play both guard spots — a big deal, considering how much Vanderbilt has struggled to find enough bodies in the backcourt over the past couple of years. Myles Stute and Akeem Odusipe are both a bit raw and project as four-year players; the good news is that with a full roster, Stackhouse has the flexibility to redshirt one or both if necessary. Trey Thomas, added to the roster over the summer, seems mostly notable for being related to Elijah Fisher, the #3 prospect in the Class of 2023, but he should at least be a depth guy in the backcourt.
Figuring out the starters on this team seems pretty easy, which seems like both good news and bad news — good that Vanderbilt has five guys who are pretty clearly the best players on the team at their position, bad in that none of the other players are likely to challenge for a starting job right away.
Sorting out the depth is a bit harder. At the very least, Vanderbilt has two additional bodies in the frontcourt in Quentin Millora-Brown and Ejike Obinna, which should allow the rather raw and projectable freshman Akeem Odusipe to redshirt. The backcourt, too, has a bit of depth with Tyrin Lawrence able to play both guard spots and Jordan Wright able to play on the wing. Issac McBride could also play some point. Myles Stute could back up both forward spots, or he could redshirt. That leaves Trey Thomas as the likely 13th man on the roster; Vanderbilt also has Braelee Albert (still a walk-on) available in an emergency.
So, let’s start with the good news. In Clevon Brown, Dylan Disu, and Quentin Millora-Brown, Vanderbilt should have a nice rotation of interior defenders. And with a full complement of scholarship players, Vanderbilt should not have the depth issues of the last couple of years that were brought on by a sheer lack of bodies. I don’t expect to see walk-ons playing significant minutes this year, something that happened with disturbing frequency last season (and probably should have in 2018-19, but that’s an entirely different conversation.)
And now the bad news: I’m not sure where the scoring comes from. Scotty Pippen Jr. did average 12 points per game as a freshman, but I also won’t be surprised if that represents his upside; at no point watching him last year did I think that this is a guy who’s about to make the jump to a 20 ppg scorer. D.J. Harvey averaged double figures at Notre Dame, but he needs to improve his shooting percentages before I’m comfortable with him being the focal point of the offense. Max Evans is mostly a role player who’s occasionally been good for a big game. The freshmen are likely to be more potential than production at this point.
With all that said, Jerry Stackhouse managed to squeeze a few wins out of a depleted roster last year after Aaron Nesmith went down, and while I don’t want to tempt fate, it seems unlikely that Vanderbilt will lose its best player for the third season in a row. I’m not saying Vanderbilt will be good this season, but modest improvement should be a reasonable expectation for this team.