NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 11: Festus Ezeli #3 of the Vanderbilt Commodores drives to the basket against Anthony Davis #23 and Terrence Jones #3 of the Kentucky Wildcats at Memorial Gymnasium on February 11, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. Kentucky won 69-63. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
I'm not sure how likely that is to happen, but part of that is that I - perhaps like some other west coast basketball fans - haven't seen that much of the Vanderbilt big man over his four years playing in the SEC.
To gain a little insight on Ezeli's development as a player and what his potential impact might be, I got in touch with the co-managers over at SB Nation's Vanderbilt site Anchor of Gold shortly after the draft to get their thoughts on what sort of talent the Golden State Warriors got with the 30th pick in the first round. They offer some nice insight not only on Ezeli's development over the years, but also on his past matchups with higher draft picks Anthony Davis and Tyler Zeller.
GSoM: First of all, from what you know about the Warriors, what was your reaction to Ezeli being selected by them at #30?
KingJamesIV: I don't think you'd be surprised to hear me say this, but, living in Nashville in the central time zone, I can't honestly say that I've seen a whole lot of Warriors games. I'm obviously extremely happy for Festus that he was selected in the first round. While Fes grew up in Nigeria, he did spend a few years in Sacramento prior to enrolling at Vanderbilt, so I'm sure he is extremely excited about landing with a team fairly close to his American hometown. Maybe he'll even surprise Andrew Bogut a bit with some of the Australian cultural knowledge he picked up as understudy to former Commodore and native Australian AJ Ogilvy.
Christian D'Andrea: I was happy with the result. Golden State's uptempo style needs an athletic center, and Ezeli has the talent to get up and down the court without holding up his team's offense. Additionally, with shooters lining the perimeter, the pressure will be off him offensively, and he should be able to make a smoother transition to the pro game. I think he'll get the chance to shine defensively and on the glass in Golden State, and those are two areas that he can excel. I am a bit concerned about GSW's depth at the center spot, particularly with Biedrins and his $9m contract in the way, but after watching the Latvian somehow get worse with each season, I think Festus has a good shot at earning his role as backup C.
2. Jerry West apparently really likes Ezeli, which is quite a compliment for a basketball player as far as I'm concerned. What is it that really stands out to you all about Ezeli?
KJIV: Size. He's enormous. 6'11 with a 7'6 wingspan. He's all muscle…I think he measured out to around 4% body fat. There's a ton of muscle on his 260+ pound frame. He was easily the strongest player on the court every single game he ever played in college. Much has been made of the fact that he hasn't been playing the game very long (there was a story in Sports Illustrated about how the first basket he ever scored was an own goal. He was 15). He really started to come into his own towards the end of his Junior season. He's tough on the court, but he's a really, really good kid off of it. Always smiling.
CDA: Work ethic, athleticism, and strength. Ezeli came to Nashville as a physical specimen who was nowhere near game ready. He toiled for three years behind A.J. Ogilvy and used his time at Vandy to adapt to the game. He broke out his junior year and then struggled through knee injuries his senior year, but he never stopped working throughout. He may be 23, but he has the potential of a much younger player thanks to his relative inexperience. If the coaching staff can get him on his grind, then he has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds in the NBA
3. The word is that Ezeli "killed" UNC center Tyler Zeller in an individual workout and some Warriors fans are looking forward to seeing how Ezeli does against #1 pick Anthony Davis when they face each other in summer league. Obviously you all have seen Ezeli vs. Davis three times this season - including during Vanderbilt's SEC title game victory - and Ezeli averaged a solid 15 points and 6 boards against a talented Kentucky team. What might we be able to take from those performances as evidence of just how good Ezeli can be?
KJIV: Honestly, the sky is the limit for this kid. Provided he can stay healthy, there is no doubt in my mind that with the continued coaching he will receive, he is going to be more than just a backup center. His defensive rebounding statistics are a little deceiving - he often would sell out for the semi-frequent helpside defensive shot block attempt at the expense of giving up prime defensive rebounding positioning. I would imagine that a combination of coaching and the increased size and athleticism that comes with a move from college to the NBA will see Festus' defensive rebounding numbers go up. He's a phenomenal offensive rebounder (mainly because he stays in position).
CDA: Ezeli was the focal point of each Vandy/UK game. Coach Kevin Stallings pinpointed that matchup as a brawn-vs.-finesse showdown, so Vandy made sure to include Fes in the offense early and often. Ezeli got the ball in the paint quite a bit and was given the green light to put up shots after the catch.
It took a while for Ezeli to acclimate to this change, but he was at his most effective in the SEC Finals against UK. Once he got a better feel for Davis's timing, he became a much more efficient player offensively. If there's one thing that changed throughout the season between those two, it's that Ezeli was able to adjust for Davis better than Davis adjusted for Ezeli. That may be a function of Ezeli's veteran status, but it's definitely a good sign towards how moldable he is as a player.
Every game that Davis played against Vandy, he had fewer blocks - dropping from 7 to 5 to 3. Much of that can be attributed to Ezeli's evolution on the offensive end. In that third and final showdown, it was enough to deliver Vandy their first SEC Tournament title since 1951.
4. You mentioned on your site that Ezeli started the season with an injury and came back early because the team was struggling. Do you think you ever saw him back to a point where he really found a rhythm at full health this season?
KJIV: Towards the end of the year he was probably full strength if not 95%. He would tell you he's 100% today. I'm not sure he wasn't 100% physically much earlier, but it was clear he wasn't fully confident in his knee -- but of course that's a normal part of the recovery process. Certainly in the SEC Championship game he was back in the swing. I don't think though that he ever caught up to where he would have been if he hadn't gotten injured prior to the start of the season. Whether that was because the team learned to play without him and then had to readjust or because he lost a little bit of that inner knowledge that he was physically unstoppable, who knows? Probably a combination of the two.
5. The word is that Ezeli is raw offensively, but what sort of situations/sets was he best in offensively?
KJIV: He's going to be tough to stop in a pick and roll type offense. He sets great screens and he seals his man and establishes position EXTREMELY well. Of course, more often than not this is opening room for other players to drive to the basket or get an open look.
Towards the end of the season, Vandy started running some dribble drive and letting Ezeli finish at the rim the way Anthony Davis would for Kentucky.
Ezeli has some traditional back to the basket post moves that he will continue to polish. His arms are so long that it will be tough for defenders to stop. In college, defenses would swarm him down low in an effort to generate turnovers. Obviously you don't see that much at all in the NBA, so I'm interested to see how his game develops as he gets more 1-on-1 attempts near the basket.
Because he's still so new to the game, his vision and awareness are still developing. Swarming him was a pretty effective defense in college because he doesn't have the handle of an Anthony Davis or the vision of some of the good big men that would be able to pass out of the double or triple team to an open shooter. It was a gamble that teams would often make. With fewer to no double teaming in the NBA, I think Festus confidence is going to skyrocket.
Festus' first season, you would foul him and send him to the line. He was dreadful. Over time, as he became comfortable playing in front of crowds (Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym holds 14,000+) and as his fundamentals improved, he actually became a pretty decent free throw shooter. He made some clutch free throws (including ones in the SEC Championship game this season, IIRC), and with continued practice, I don't see hacking him and sending him to the line as a defensive game plan.
Finally, as I mentioned above, he gobbles up offensive rebounds, which will lead to second chance points.
One of Festus' nicknames we had for him was SkyNet. As in the Terminator. We joked that as Festus learned he would eventually become self aware. Whether or not the light bulb has already gone off for him, that moment is imminent. Judgment Day approaches.
For more on Ezeli, check out Christian's own summary of Vanderbilt players in the 2012 NBA Draft. For more on Vanderbilt basketball in general, visit Anchor of Gold.
For more on the Golden State Warriors draft, check out SBN Bay Area's storystream. To follow along with analysis and reaction to the entire NBA draft at SB Nation's main story stream or SBN Studios' 2012 NBA Draft features.