Vanderbilt Hoops in the NBA: Festus Ezeli

Call it a coincidence -- you wouldn't necessarily be wrong. Yet, how amazing is it that among the relatively small numbers of Vanderbilt players who have left a large mark in the NBA, two of them have found success with the same franchise in the same part of the country? Clyde Lee blazed the trail in the San Francisco Bay Area with the Warriors, and now, Festus Ezeli is following that path.


To say that Festus Ezeli has “hit it big” in the NBA might be an overstatement.

Emphasize the word “might,” and perceive that word not as sarcasm, but as straightforward sincerity. Why, you ask? When viewed with sincerity and not through the lens of snark, the word “might” means “it’s possible.” That, in turn, means “the opposite or other alternative realities are also possible.” It could be that Ezeli has “hit it big” with the Golden State Warriors. It’s much better when discussed as a serious issue than casually dismissed or (worse) laughed at.

Of course, when viewed through the main prisms of minutes played and points scored per game, Ezeli’s career is entirely unremarkable. He is a supporting-cast player and will probably never become more than that in the very near future. If he ever becomes more of a force in the NBA, such that he is a top-five or top-six-in-a-rotation player, it will likely mean he’s been traded to an inferior team and is the best option available. However, that last point raises a legitimate question about the very notion of success at the highest level: Is it just about the points and the minutes and the centrality to one’s team? It might be, but it might not be (emphasis on the word “might” again – see that?).

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Before examining just how much Ezeli meant to the reigning world champions of professional basketball, let’s stop and simply savor the fact that Vanderbilt’s David Price – no introduction or explanation necessary – came to Game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Ezeli’s invitation late last May, while Price’s Major League Baseball team at the time – the Detroit Tigers – visited Oakland to play the A’s. Ezeli’s identity as a Vandy man gave him an opportunity to represent the school and reach out to fellow alumni. Ezeli tasted locker-room champagne, participated in a boisterous world-championship celebration, and experienced the other mountaintop moments Clyde Lee (a better NBA player without question) never got to soak in on a personal and direct level with the Warriors. Lee, as we noted, made an NBA Finals and got close a couple of other times, but he never won the whole enchilada. Ezeli has, and by that quite legitimate measurement, he HAS hit it big in his career.

Now, though, let’s dive into pure basketball analysis to make the case that Ezeli’s still-young career is meeting expectations.

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The first thing which has to be said about Ezeli is that he missed a whole season due to a knee injury (in 2013-2014). That kind of setback, especially early in one’s development as a professional, can be psychologically wrenching and a genuine physical threat to a career. Yet, Ezeli overcame that frightening and frustrating occurrence to become a measurably better player in the season following the injury. That alone is the kind of triumph – a very personal one – which makes the whole of a career so much bigger and more satisfying than numbers could ever express.

The second big point to make about Festus (For The Rest Of Us – sorry… no, not sorry…) is that of all the members of the 2012 Vanderbilt team, he’s not the one who would have been expected to have the best career of them all. Time could perhaps change things – it’s not as though we’ve already reached a point where it’s necessary or prudent to offer some sort of final verdict on Jeffery Taylor or John Jenkins, but they – instructively – have not made themselves as useful to a team as Ezeli has, and Ezeli has made himself useful to a championship team.

In a season or two, if Jenkins can make an impact in Atlanta which is similar to what Ezeli brought to Oakland and the Warriors this past season, we can certainly revisit this discussion (and very probably will), but for now, Ezeli is the player who has put his stamp on the NBA in ways that the other 2012 starters have not. It’s been something to behold – and more specifically, not because of what the others have failed to do, but because of how much Festus flourished in a pressure-packed setting, when Golden State needed some extra contributions to finish off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.

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You might have been focused on Vanderbilt baseball at the time, and rightly at that, so let’s briefly touch on the main tension point of the Warriors-Cavs Finals: Cleveland’s big men, Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson, were torching Golden State starting big man Andrew Bogut, who was simply ineffective and was not helping Golden State’s cause with his place on the floor in the series. The Finals changed in Game 4 when Warrior coach Steve Kerr put Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup and benched Bogut. This made Golden State smaller and more agile, and Cleveland could not defend the Warriors nearly as well as a result. Stephen Curry got more open looks. The Warriors increased the tempo of the game (to their liking), and the dynamics shifted in ways which enabled Golden State to win three straight games, two of them in Cleveland, to capture the series in six games. The Warriors won their first title since their 1975 run, which was achieved one season after they traded away Vanderbilt’s Clyde Lee.

This time, a Vanderbilt player was part of the journey for the Warriors, and what made it more special was that Festus Ezeli made a major contribution before it was all said and done.

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No, Ezeli did not do what another unlikely hero of the 2015 NBA Finals did. He did not replicate Matthew Dellavedova’s out-of-nowhere performance, with a game-winning pair of free throws in Game 2 (after an offensive rebound against a taller opponent) and the pivotal basket in Game 3 when Golden State was making a rally. Ezeli did not enjoy late-game heroics or come close to scoring 20 points in any game as Dellavedova did. However, Ezeli trumped Delly not only in terms of winning the championship, but in terms of his ability to be a defining presence in a world-championship-clinching game.

Ezeli didn’t just surprise onlookers with a 10-point, 4-rebound performance while Bogut sat and the Warriors’ readjusted rotation depended on role players for more production. Ezeli outscored two separate starters, Harrison Barnes (9 points) and the highly-lauded half of the Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson, who finished with only 5 points. You never in a million years would have been able to convince anyone that Ezeli could have forged such a feat within the context of the Warriors’ own internal workings. That he provided such a performance in Game 6 of the Finals on the road, against LeBron James and the rest of the Cavs, makes his effort that much more amazing.

There’s more, though.

Ezeli didn’t merely score his 10 points during a lull early in the second quarter or at a point in the game when coaches were trotting out second-tier lineups and just hoping to get by for a few minutes. Ezeli scored eight of his 10 points in the final four and a half minutes of the third quarter. Ezeli was a central, not just peripheral, reason why Golden State was able to maintain a double-digit lead (71-58) heading into the final minute of the third quarter, and therefore had enough of a cushion to hold off a late three-point shooting spree by J.R. Smith of the Cavs.

Sure, the numbers will never capture Festus Ezeli’s full value to the Golden State Warriors in their championship season of 2015. Yet, on a night when the Warriors needed tangible (numerical) contributions, Ezeli provided them.

We return to the question at the beginning of this piece: Has Festus Ezeli “hit it big” in the NBA?

That question is for each individual Vanderbilt fan to answer.

Mine? He’s hit it big enough – let’s put it that way.


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