One of the coolest parts of being a manager over the last four years is having spent three of those years around three different NBA players on an almost daily basis. At many programs (unless it is place like Kansas or Kentucky), a manager is lucky to be around for one NBA player, but I got to watch three of them every single day, and it is pretty special to have been able to do that. While John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli are all in the NBA, they each brought completely different things to the table while in school. Their greatness on the basketball court was so special, because each of their styles were so unique, and I am going to try to convey in this post just what it was like being around that every day.
John is the most driven individual I have ever been around. In college he had a singular focus: become the best player he could be, and he honed his skills each and every day with a zealousness I have not seen from anybody else in any field. John was in the gym every day and every night, putting up jumpers, working on ballhandling, or watching film. He couldn't stay away from the game, his love for it seeps through in everything that he does. Despite not being a vocal leader, John had the respect of everyone on the team and was named captain as a junior because of his relentless work ethic, and that didn't just come after practice, but it showed in every game and every practice as well.
John has an enormous chip on his shoulder. Despite being ranked the 15th overall recruit in the Class of 2009 by Rivals.com and averaging 42 points per game as a senior in high school, that wasn't good enough for John. Most kids would have rested on their laurels with those accomplishments but John wanted more. He craved more. He was devastated that he was not a McDonald's All-American and also wanted to be #1 in his class, and whatever criticisms there were of him, he took to heart: "Not strong enough", "Not a great athlete", "One dimensional", "lacks size", "doesn't defend". John stored those in his memory and worked with a maniacal passion and extreme confidence to prove that those things didn't apply to him or that he could overcome them and still be great.
That is why John's game, other than the end result, is never fully aesthetically pleasing. His jumpshot is pure and picture perfect and when he drains a 30 foot three with a swish, you just have to watch in awe, but what people forget is everything that it takes to get that split-second for an open look. John would run off screens, back and forth, back and forth, and never get tired. Nobody wanted to defend him not because he had such incredible stamina. It wasn't easy for John to get open, but he became an expert at how to find that crevice of daylight to launch his shot, and that is what I enjoyed most about watching John: the process.
It wasn't easy for him to be great, nothing was easy about his three years at Vanderbilt, but his relentlessness both on and off the court was just amazing. He just found a way to get it done, and he did. He always did.
Jeff is kind of like the exact opposite of John in my mind. Whereas John never really had the "measurables" that NBA teams look for, that was never a problem with Jeff. While John was ranked higher coming out of high school than Jeff, it was clear from day one to people that Jeff had that "it" factor. He was just a natural at the game of basketball. Everything came so easily to Jeff and that is what made him such a joy to watch. Whereas John would work his tail off just to clear space, because of his ridiculous athleticism and strength, the game just never overwhelmed Jeff. He was so fluid on the court and just so smooth.
There is really no way to describe the way Jeff looked on a basketball court. He was like a natural, who was born to play the game of basketball. You felt like there was nothing Jeff could not do on a basketball court his senior year. While he struggled with confidence in his jumper his first two years, and even a little his third year, his senior year you felt like he was unstoppable. And when everything was clicking for Jeff, he was one of the best players in the country. He never missed a game in his career and played both ends of the floor with the same tenacity that made him so tough as an all-around player.
There were games and practices where all you could do was shake your head at what Jeff was doing. I remember distinctly, our game versus Florida in 2012 at their place. We weren't playing well as a team, particularly dealing with their press, but Jeff was awesome. He singlehandedly kept us in the game with his play on both sides of the floor. Then there was the Ole Miss game where hit his first seven shots and scored 23 points in the first half. It was an amazing display and one that captured just what a great player Jeff is when he has everything going for him. He tantalized you as a manager because everything would be ho-hum and then he would do something spectacular that would remind you just how special he was.
Watching Festus play was nothing like watching John or Jeff play, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that he picked up basketball so late in his life. Festus had never played organized basketball until he was 16 and was so raw at the time that he got cut from his high school team (for a fantastic profile of Fes' journey to Nashville, read this SI story by Pablo Torre), and watching Festus was at times like watching a high schooler or a young college player, because he was getting so much better every day. He was constantly improving and you felt like you were watching him go through basketball's equivalent of a growth spurt, but that's what made him so intriguing as a player.
Festus was so big and so strong, but he never really had any idea just how talented he was or just how much bigger he was than his opponents. Confidence was always an issue for Festus because he felt like he was perpetually playing catch-up to guys that had been playing since they were three years old and it frustrated him at times. It also frustrated Coach Stallings as well. For instance, Coach would design plays that got Fes the ball within 3 feet of the rim, but often times instead of just going up with the ball, he would take a dribble, and that never ended well. It was like he had to constantly be told what he should be doing because everything was still so new to him and he absorbed so much every day, that at times he forgot he was 6'11 and 260 pounds.
It was so rewarding to see Festus succeed for everyone in the program because he wanted to succeed so badly. Festus never wanted to let his teammates down and worked so hard not just to better himself but to prevent himself from ever failing the team. Despite the inevitable growing pains, he was frustrated when he would make the same mistakes over and over (like leaving his feet on pump fakes) and the those frustrations were so intense that Fes would sometimes be like in his own world it seemed like on the bench. He didn't always know how to let a mistake go and move on and it lingered with him because it crushed him if he let the team down. That is why for so many in the program, it is so awesome to see Fes playing a lot and playing well in the NBA. It's because he made it. After everything it took, he's at the top now.