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Why I’m not worried about the transfer portal departures

Let’s see what happens over the next month before we panic.

Syndication: The Tennessean George Walker IV / The Tennessean / USA TODAY NETWORK

Since Saturday, Vanderbilt has seen four players from the 2022-23 team enter the transfer portal. Add on Myles Stute (who entered the transfer portal prior to the team’s NIT run) and Tyrin Lawrence (who declared for the NBA Draft, though he’s maintaining his college eligibility), and the departures of Liam Robbins and Emmanuel Ansong (both of whom are out of eligibility), and Vanderbilt potentially could be losing eight scholarship players off last year’s team.

Are we starting over? Is this something to panic about? No, not yet. Here’s why.

This is just the new normal

Look, I hate to be this reductive, because a large number of portal departures can be a sign of negative momentum within a program. It might be a sign that players don’t get along with the coach, or it might be a sign that players don’t believe the program is headed in the right direction. A large number of departures can be a sign that players are voting with their feet and bailing on a sinking program — but from all appearances, this isn’t that.

Here’s why: look at who’s entering the portal. Individually, all of the players leaving the program make sense in purely basketball terms. For one thing, four of the five players who entered the portal ranked among Vanderbilt’s five worst scholarship players in Box Plus/Minus on Now, the danger with relying on that number (aside from the dangers of trying to reduce player contributions to a single number) is that there can be quite a bit of year-to-year fluctuation (for instance, in 2021-22, Myles Stute ranked third on the team behind Scotty Pippen Jr. and Drew Weikert, and this season he ranked ninth, while Tyrin Lawrence ranked 10th among scholarship players in 2021-22) and it might not give you much idea of a player’s upside.

Still, it’s not super concerning. Myles Stute was looking at a minutes crunch next season with Colin Smith arguably surpassing him down the stretch this season and playing basically the same position. Trey Thomas had reason to be concerned that Jerry Stackhouse was about to bring in a transfer to take his minutes (or possibly even incoming freshman Isaiah West.) Malik Dia and Noah Shelby were the last players off the bench for most of 2022-23 and neither had any particular reason to expect that they’d get a lot more minutes next season barring significant improvement or an unexpected departure.

The one exception to this is Jordan Wright, who ranked third on the team in Box Plus/Minus and probably could have expected to play a significant role next season. The caveat there is that Wright has been at Vanderbilt for four years and he’s getting his degree; the only reason he even has another year of eligibility is because of the COVID year. I always expected Wright to be gone after this season.

But there’s no reason why the specific players that Vanderbilt has lost to the transfer portal should be concerning. Vanderbilt should be able to replace these guys. It sucks that you probably won’t have the same emotional attachment to an incoming transfer than you will to a guy who’s been in the program for three or four years, but this is just how things go these days.

Vanderbilt hasn’t lost the guys they absolutely can’t afford to lose

Now, this comes with a massive caveat: Tyrin Lawrence declared for the NBA Draft. Logically, I still expect him to return to Vanderbilt: Lawrence isn’t popping up on mock drafts, and he doesn’t appear to be the caliber of player who an NBA team will sign to a two-way contract, which is about the point where I worry about a guy who’s probably going undrafted deciding that he wants to stay in the draft anyway. It’s true that some guys who declare for the NBA Draft are just done with college ball and don’t mind playing in the Belgian domestic league or whatever, but from any logical standpoint, Tyrin Lawrence will probably be playing college basketball next season. (It might not be at Vanderbilt, which is why you should worry that he decides that he also wants to enter the transfer portal later, but that hasn’t happened so far.)

Going into the offseason, I thought that Vanderbilt would be okay as long as they held on to Lawrence, Ezra Manjon, and Colin Smith, roughly in that order. Paul Lewis probably isn’t a necessary part for 2023-24 because of Manjon’s return, though him leaving would be a red flag for different reasons. Vanderbilt will also return Quentin Millora-Brown, which while probably not necessary also means that Vanderbilt has one fewer hole to fill in its rotation. Lee Dort (more on him in a minute) hasn’t entered his name in the portal either, and while he’s the one player in the bottom five of BPM who hasn’t left, he also has considerably more upside than what he showed this season. Add in three incoming freshmen (Isaiah West, JaQualon Roberts, and Carter Lang), and Vanderbilt already has the makings of a decent rotation for next season.

Just wait to see what the roster looks like

Now, there might be a reason to panic: if Vanderbilt can’t pull comparable players to the players that they just lost to the transfer portal.

You can certainly do better than Jordan Wright and Myles Stute, but you can also do a hell of a lot worse than those guys. Roster turnover can hurt you because unless you’re losing guys who just absolutely can’t play, there’s always some risk that the players you bring in are worse than the players you lost.

As the roster stands right now, Vanderbilt will probably start Manjon at the point, Lawrence at the second guard spot, and Colin Smith at power forward. They can probably get by with Quentin Millora-Brown at center if necessary (after all, they did for most of 2021-22 while Liam Robbins was hurt), though it would be ideal to upgrade that position and relegate Millora-Brown to the backup role he’s more suited for. Paul Lewis and Isaiah West will be the guards off the bench. I’m not sure where the other two freshmen figure in next year, though it would be ideal to make it so that they don’t absolutely have to be in the rotation if they don’t merit it.

There’s enough positional flexibility with Lawrence and Smith that Vanderbilt could sign a starter-level player at any position from two through four and be fine — Lawrence could be the third guard in a small lineup, while Smith could play the three if necessary. Those are the things that Vanderbilt absolutely needs. Assuming Lawrence returns, the backcourt should be pretty well set; bringing in an additional forward to come off the bench would take a bit of pressure off Roberts and Lang. The last scholarship could go to a developmental high school prospect, or it could go to an Emmanuel Ansong type.

There might be a reason to panic, but we don’t know if panic is necessary right now. Not simply because some players are transferring.