On Wednesday night, I had a chance to take in the Vanderbilt game at Davidson. The contest turned into a battle and the unexpected return of Festus Ezeli to the Commodores lineup spelled doom for the Wildcats. It had been nearly four years since I’d seen Ezeli up close and it's fair to say he’s going to change the fortunes of Vanderbilt in a good way. Seeing he, Vandy guard John Jenkins and Davidson's J.P. Kuhlman live made me dig up old evaluations and compare them to the 2011 versions.
From Reebok U to the NBA?
In this business, when your job is to see as many prospects as you possibly can, sometimes you simply get lucky. In 2007, I saw Ezeli play a few games at Reebok U. and then never heard from him again until he enrolled at Vanderbilt a few months later.
Ironically, at that camp, Davidson's Frank Ben-Eze led the event in blocks with 7.3 and Ezeli averaged 6.3. The two gathered together Wednesday night in a college game and probably never realized they’d played against each other before. At that time, Ben-Eze was the bigger name and got more attention. Ezeli was a novelty item who had everyone scrambling to figure out who he was.
In 2007, my notes on Ezeli read like this:
“this guy has zero touch. Probably a rotation player who will be used for rebounding and defense. Mid-major plus.”
Now, in my defense, Ezeli couldn’t have picked a worse setting for an evaluation. He was entrenched in a camp that featured glamorous shot jackers and there’s a good chance he didn’t know a single person in attendance. Surely they had no idea who he was.
As it turned out, I got half the evaluation correct. Ezeli’s a hoss in the lane as a board man and is an excellent shot-blocker. Fast-forward a few years and after Wednesday’s debut, I’d say he has excellent touch and superior hands. He already has NBA size and is very different than the raw player I saw in 2007. I’ve seen Ezeli’s name in the first round of mock drafts and no one should have beef with those rankings. This is a kid who averaged three points a game the first two years of his college career. By the way, this isn’t the first time Vanderbilt’s gotten their postmen better. Kevin Stallings and his staff know about coaching bigs.
Here's a final note on Festus. Renardo Sidney was the highest-rated big man at Reebok U. when Ezeli broke onto the scene. Sidney wasn't motivated or interested enough in playing in the camp's all-star game. Now, both are in the SEC, Ezeli's ascended past Sidney and only one will be a first-round pick. In 2007, the notion that the futures of these two centers would flip flop was unfathomable.
Jenkins skill isn’t just shooting; it’s getting shots too
Numerous times against Davidson, all myself and Paul Biancardi could do was shake our heads. If I had to pick a word to describe the Vanderbilt junior, it would be “cold.” He cooked a couple of Wildcats with a lethal step-back jumper and dynamite crossover into a pull-up. This kid shoots 43 percent from 3-point range at the highest level of college basketball. Athletically, he’s not going to win any awards and he’s got to be stronger with the ball but as a shooter -- with a nod to Rotnei Clarke who is sitting out at Butler -- Jenkins has the makings of the nation’s top marksman.
A lot of kids can shoot. Jenkins can shoot with skill. He can get loose for shots in all kinds of ways and that’s the reason he has a chance to make it in the NBA. Not many can create left and right, hit pull-ups and snap off 3s with a guy hanging on him or with seemingly no room to click the shot off. The Redick’s, Curry’s, etc., those guys don’t just play catch and shoot. They know how to work and get open; so does Jenkins.
Heading into his senior year of high school, Jenkins had a lot to prove. Many -- me included -- questioned who he would guard in the athletic world of the SEC. That’s fair but we should have weighted his grade because of the superiority of his shooting and the fact that he killed it as a senior. He averaged 42.6 points in his last year and toppled the 3,000-point mark. He went for 60 in a game in his final year.
Jenkins played with the Tennessee Tigers AAU team; not exactly the most high profile bunch. My research, along with intern Drew Cannon, tells us that on the mid-major level, the all-conference guys are bred by these non-shoe sponsored teams. Jenkins bucked the trend amongst high-majors and continued his collegiate success.
At the 2008 NBAPA Top 100 Camp, Kenny Boynton, Jordan Hamilton and Jared Sullinger finished 2-3-4 in scoring. Jenkins led the event with a 17.8 average. At Vandy, he’s good for 21.3 points a game. He’d be wise to come back to Vandy for his senior year, earn his degree and take aim at a professional career once he’s exhausted his eligibility. His time will come, but right now he’s a joy to watch.
Kuhlman needed help getting to campus
It comes as no surprise that the kid who was named for the pope (John Paul), needed a small miracle to find his way to Davidson. As a rising senior, J.P. Kuhlman was on Davidson’s radar. Bob McKillop wanted to see him but the then Jacksonville Lee Bulls combo guard was hit and miss on the circuit. At the AAU Nationals, Davidson went to evaluate Kuhlman but he wasn’t with the team. The Wildcats figured they’d missed their window to catch him in action. Then luck intervened.
Kuhlman showed up later during the tournament. One of the Davidson assistants received a call tipping them off that he was back and the entire staff sat courtside watching him. A few weeks later, after almost eluding the Wildcats radar, he visited and committed to McKillop on the spot.
The kid who needed a minor miracle to get to campus was the SoCon freshman of the year in 2010 and a mid-major freshman all-american. Often times you watch a guy and say “How’d they get him?” Well, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. The Wildcats were one phone call away from never getting a chance to watch Kuhlman. This year, he’ll be an All-Conference player and the Wildcats will eventually need to replace him, just as he took over the reigns for Stephen Curry.