His defensive play kept him off the floor. His offensive play makes the case he should be on it more.
Sheldon Jeter continues to adapt in his first season of college basketball but recently the Vanderbilt freshman has energized a sleepy offensive club.
Heading into Wednesday’s game against in-state rival Tennessee at Memorial Gymnasium, (7 p.m., SEC Network), Jeter boasts the Commodores’ third-best scoring average in Southeastern Conference play. In league games, the lanky 6-foot-7, 215-pounder averages 7.7 points and a team-high 4.7 rebounds. But his minutes – 21.4 a game in SEC action – rank sixth on the team.
“We’ll see minutes go as the way I feel like they need to go in order for us to win games,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “In theory, I would like to get him more minutes. He has certainly become one of our better offensive players. He doesn’t have fear. He doesn’t have any apprehensions when it comes to playing offense. He is a good guy to have out there.”
When Jeter arrived on campus this summer, the two-time all-state selection from Beaver Falls, Pa., dripped with confidence. Choosing Vanderbilt over Wisconsin, Penn State and South Carolina, among others, Jeter figured he could immediately impact the young Commodores.
He quickly realized he would have to earn his minutes and show he wouldn’t be a liability on defense.
That wasn’t the case early on. Stallings said his offense was ahead of his defense but not enough to garner more playing time.
“I thought I should have been starting,” Jeter said. “But after watching a lot of tape, my defense was not where it should have been. It is still not where it should be now. But it is improving every day. That’s all I can do right now. It is just the speed of the game, really. Everything is slower. My awareness is a lot better.”
Lately, he’s been playing better on both ends of the floor.
On Saturday, against Arkansas, he logged 21 meaningful minutes. Making just his six start, Jeter helped Vanderbilt (9-13, 3-7) snap a four-game winning streak and pull away from the Razorbacks. He scored all 13 of his points in the first half, contributing 11 points and three 3-pointers in a 17-2 run.
He also blocked two shots and picked up a steal. In fact, in conference games he ranks second on the team with eight blocks and seven steals. Junior forward Rod Odom has noticed Jeter spending extra time after practice on balancing exercises and improving his leg strength.
“[Defense] is definitely something he has actively been working on and you can see the improvements,” Odom said. “I think he is playing with a lot of confidence right now, which is one of the most important parts of the game. He is doing it at the right time and I think he has a lot of momentum. It is definitely good for him and good for us.”
Electric around the rim, Jeter might be Vanderbilt’s best finisher. He is also one of the team’s better 3-point shooters, shooting at a 43.9 percent clip. He also ranks second on the team in field-goal percentage (48.9).
But on a team that averages an SEC-low 59.5 points a game, Jeter hasn’t been immune from inconsistency. He has started six of his last eight games. The two games he came off the bench – against Tennessee and LSU – came on the heels of games in which he scored four and three points.
Before practice on Monday, Stallings said he wasn’t sure if he would change the starting lineup for the sixth time in six games against Tennessee (12-10, 4-6).
That Jeter is a viable option this late into the season has surprised the veteran coach.
“Honestly, when we started practice back in October, I would have wagered largely that he wouldn’t be this much in the mix and having this much of an impact our team,” Stallings said. “But he has just gotten a lot better and he has gotten adjusted to the college game. His skills and athleticism are coming out now.”