Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball Player Preview: Stars ready to shine

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Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball Player Preview: Stars ready to shine

The Vanderbilt Commodores beat Austin Peay State University on Friday, November 10th, 2017. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

The Vanderbilt Commodores beat Austin Peay State University on Friday, November 10th, 2017. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

The Vanderbilt Commodores beat Austin Peay State University on Friday, November 10th, 2017. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

The Vanderbilt Commodores beat Austin Peay State University on Friday, November 10th, 2017. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

It’s almost time for tip-off, and after bringing in the best recruiting class in program history,  the Vanderbilt Commodores are ready to defy expectations and make some noise in the SEC.

Here’s a breakdown of the entire 2018-19 Men’s Basketball roster.

Saben Lee, Guard

This season, the Commodores retain just six of the twelve players to touch the hardwood for the 2017-18 team. Of those six players, only three did so in all 32 games, with Saben Lee leading the pack; he appeared in over 66% of the team’s minutes played. It goes without saying that Lee was a spark plug for this team last year, as defenses often fell victim to his athleticism and ability to get to the rim. Don’t expect that to change this year.

Saben is all but penciled in to start at the point guard (or shooting guard?) position alongside Darius Garland, but if Lee wants to serve as an effective complement to Garland, he must improve one thing: three-point shooting. Lee shot an abysmal 30% from behind the arc last season, which allowed opponents to exploit his kryptonite and make him shoot. Garland will provide plenty of space for Lee off-ball. Lee claims to have improved his catching and shooting ability in the offseason. It remains to be seen just how much he may have improved, but if Lee can be relatively effective from deep, look out. —Simon Gibbs, senior writer 

Yanni Wetzell, Forward/Center

Yanni Wetzell isn’t your conventional big. This 6’10” specimen, formerly a nationally-ranked tennis player in his home country of New Zealand, is finally eligible to take the floor after sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules. Wetzell transferred from Division-II St. Mary’s, where he averaged roughly fourteen points and six rebounds per game. What makes Wetzell so unique is that he shot 42% from beyond the arc (50% in his sophomore season) at St. Mary’s, giving Vanderbilt more catch-and-shoot options to complement Garland’s on-ball ability.

Wetzell, alongside Matt Ryan, can hopefully provide Vanderbilt’s offense with something it lacked last year; let’s call it, “The Luke Kornet Factor,” or the capability of big men to stretch the floor. Expect these two to shoot the ball from deep early and often. —Simon Gibbs, senior writer

Joe Toye, Guard/Forward

As the lone senior on the roster, Toye could play an important role as a versatile guard/forward. He didn’t have a starting role for much of last season, but made significant contributions in his average of 18-plus minutes per game. Toye was a big contributor in key games as well, putting up 16 points in home games against Kentucky and Mississippi State. As the last remaining player from the Kevin Stallings era, Toye has seen the ups and downs of the program. While the forward position is clogged up with new faces and transfers, Toye could see some time as a shooting guard off the bench in a rotation with Maxwell Evans. In addition, he could fill in as a small forward if freshman Aaron Nesmith needs some time to adjust to the college level. —Cutler Klein, sports editor

Maxwell Evans, Guard

In his freshman season, Evans found himself in a bit of a platoon, stuck amongst the surplus of guards that Vanderbilt had in its rotation.  This season, the smoke has cleared, and Evans will look to carve out a more defined role as the Commodores’ backup point guard. The 6’2” sophomore out of Houston already looks the part, gaining muscle in the offseason in addition to working on his three-point shot, which could prove vital for a unit that lost some elite shooters.

Expect Evans to become a threat from beyond the arc this season, especially in small-ball lineups that will have him at the two. His greatest strength, however, has always been his perimeter defense, and it’s what notched him a few starts last season. For a team looking to improve it’s defensive efficiency, Maxwell Evans might just be an X-factor. —Max Schneider, associate sports editor

Darius Garland, Guard

Photo by Cutler Klein

In August, Frankie Vision released a video of Darius Garland playing in a private workout with NBA players, including former Vanderbilt standout Damian Jones, at the Memorial Gym practice court. In a room full of professional ball players, Garland stood out as one of the best on the floor. If that’s any indication, the Brentwood Academy product could be the best offensive point guard in the country by the time this season ends.

Garland made history in November of 2017 by becoming the first five-star recruit to commit to Vanderbilt. He won three consecutive Tennessee Mr. Basketball awards, becoming just the second player in Tennessee history to do so. Standing at 6’2’’ and 175 pounds, Garland will be a force to be reckoned with alongside Saben Lee in the backcourt. If Garland has truly worked on bulking up his frame, then his size could end up being an advantage for him. Look for Garland to be an electrifying player this season as he makes his way towards a successful NBA career. —Cutler Klein, sports editor

Simisola Shittu, Forward/Center

Simisola Shittu enters as one of the most highly regarded recruits Vanderbilt basketball has ever seen. Standing at 6’10’’ and 240lbs, “Simi” was a 2018 McDonald’s All-American and ranked as the number one power forward in the country by Rivals.com. As a junior at the Vermont Academy, Simi averaged a double-double with 19.9 points and 12.7 rebounds.

What makes Simi one of the best frontcourt prospects in the nation is his versatility. He is an excellent ball handler and passer and can play all positions. It would not be surprising to see coach Bryce Drew run Shittuat point guard for a few plays this season. Although he missed most of his senior season due to a torn ACL in December, he is expected to be ready and contribute significant minutes for the upcoming year. There are high expectations for Shittu, but with his versatile playmaking ability, he is anticipated to round out one of the most talented frontcourts Vanderbilt has ever seen. —Sebastian Baca, sports reporter

Isaiah Rice, Guard

Rice is in his second season as a walk-on to the program. Last year, he appeared in two games and scored his first collegiate points against Alcorn State. With a crowded group of guards on the team, Rice might see the floor late in games in non-conference play. He was the captain of his high school team at Park Tudor in Indianapolis, Indiana, helping lead them to two state titles. —Cutler Klein, sports editor

Clevon Brown, Forward

When talking about Clevon Brown, few can forget the block party he threw when he blocked eight shots at Ole Miss last year. You can expect him to continue providing memorable shot-blocks this upcoming season; he registered an impressive 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes as a sophomore.

What’s more, he can make two-pointers at a stellar clip of 57.8% and was reliable on the defensive end. The only obvious flaw in his game is the lack of an outside stroke. On a team where floor stretching is an absolute must for success, Brown’s 26% efficiency from downtown really caps his minutes. Given the number of players in the frontcourt rotation, it’s unclear how many minutes Brown will get. Still, you can never have enough long, athletic bigs who can score in the paint and defend well, and that’s exactly what Brown is. —Milind Mishra, sports reporter

Aaron Nesmith, Forward

Nesmith was the first member of the 2019 recruiting class, as he signed with Vanderbilt in the weeks prior to Garland committing. Despite being crowded with two five-stars in his class, Nesmith could play an integral role as a small forward that has some height and can stretch the floor. In his senior season at Porter Gaud High School in Charleston, South Carolina, he was named the Gatorade Player of the Year in the state, beating out other top basketball talent like Duke’s Zion Williamson.

Standing at 6’6’’, Nesmith is a prolific shooter, as he averaged upwards of 20 points per game in his senior season in high school. He made nine three-pointers in the Chick-Fil-A Classic while in high school, and he will need to replicate those numbers as Vanderbilt tries to replace deep scoring threats in Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance. Between Nesmith and 6’7’’ Matt Ryan, the Commodores could have quite a lineup of forwards to play at the small forward position this season. —Cutler Klein, sports editor

Mac Hunt, Guard

Mac Hunt is one of two Commodore walk-ons this season and joined the historic freshman class over the summer. He was a four-year varsity player at McCallie High School in Chattanooga, Tennessee and helped lead his team to the state championship game in the 2016-17 season where they lost to none other than Darius Garland and Brentwood Academy. Hunt also shot a remarkable 47.3% from deep in his senior season and comes into his time at Vanderbilt with plenty of experience against top-notch competition.

While he faces a tough challenge to earn minutes on this team overloaded with talent, Hunt has more than enough experience to do a nice job pushing the skilled group of Commodore guards and shooters such as Garland, Matt Ryan, and Saben Lee during practice. —Alyssa Muir, sports reporter

Matt Ryan, Forward

Vanderbilt has high hopes for an NCAA Tournament berth this season and of all players on this years team, Matt Ryan is the most experienced in that setting.  Ryan transferred to Vanderbilt from Notre Dame and after sitting out last season, he could be thrown into the starting lineup starting on November 6th. At Notre Dame, Ryan stretched the floor beautifully by hitting an average of 39% of his three point field goals and was an integral part of Notre Dame’s Elite Eight run in 2016. Drew will rely on Ryan to not only provide offense, but also to be a leader of the younger guys on the team.

Ryan has experience and understands what it takes to reach the NCAA tournament as he did with Notre Dame.  In addition, Ryan stands at 6’8”, adding another skilled big man to a team that last year lacked talent at the power forward and center positions. As the three-point shot continues to become more important in college basketball, Ryan’s value this year will be undeniable and alongside Yanni Wetzell. Vanderbilt should have a surplus of floor spacing big men to open driving lanes for Saben Lee and Darius Garland. —Justin Hershey, sports reporter

Ejike Obinna, Forward/Center

When people describe a basketball player as being “raw,” this is what they mean.  Ejike Obinna has the body of an elite center. He just needs to learn to move like one.  The Nigeria native was thrust into the starting lineup last season in an otherwise shallow frontcourt, and showed flashes of brilliance.  His 14-point showing against Mississippi state was perhaps the peak of his season. However, at times Obinna’s presence only clogged the paint, and without a reliable mid-range jumper in his arsenal, opposing bigs simply camped under the rim.  

Obinna figures to come off the bench this season, and has been looking to improve that jumper in the offseason. If he can increase fluidity and knock down shots consistently, he’ll be a big part of this program going forward. —Max Schneider, associate sports editor

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