Among its other virtues, the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team offers a taste of international intrigue. Along with the United States, various Commodores hail from Cameroon, Nigeria and Sweden.
But contrary to popular wisdom, Kevin Stallings hasn’t left American soil to woo any of them to Vanderbilt. No, the Commodores’ head coach doesn’t have a private jet because he doesn’t need one: The international talent he and his coaching staff have come up with in the past few years has all come from, well, our backyard.
Stallings said the only player he skipped across the ocean to see was A.J. Ogilvy. The Australian played three years at Vanderbilt before declaring early for the NBA draft after last season. He is currently playing professional basketball in Turkey.
Otherwise, the Commodores have relied on AAU tournaments to pull out foreign players — but it is not by design.
“We go watch guys play, and if they’re good they’re good, and if they’re not they’re not. It doesn’t matter to us [where they’re from],” Stallings said. “It is not our intent to go recruit foreign players. We are just going to recruit the best players we can find and they can do the schoolwork and they are the kind of kids and people we want. And that’s what we’ve done.”
Steve Tchiengang and James Siakam are both natives of Douala, Cameroon, while Festus Ezeli is from Nigeria and Jeffery Taylor spent the first 18 years of his life in Sweden. All played basketball in the U.S. before coming to Vanderbilt. Tchiengang, a 6-foot-9 junior forward, came over in 2004 with only two months of basketball under his belt.
“It was nothing like basketball here,” Tchiengang said. “The rules were different, pretty much nonexistent.”
Tchiengang spent three years in Houston before wrapping up high school in Florida. But those four years gave him a huge advantage entering Vanderbilt, compared with fellow Africans Siakam and Ezeli.
Like Tchiengang, Siakam didn’t have much experience with basketball in Cameroon. So the 6-foot-7 forward spent the past two years developing his game at an Illinois high school and is redshirting his freshman season to adjust to the college level.
Ezeli also redshirted his freshman campaign back in 2007-08. The sport was new to him; he’d just begun to play organized basketball in Sacramento, Calif., in the summer of 2007.
The extra season paid off. After spending the past two years behind Ogilvy, the 6-11 Ezeli has grown into a dominant big-man in the Southeastern Conference. He is the school’s all-time single-season blocks leader with 80 and counting this season.
“I have had to work on everything since I came to Vanderbilt — my hands, my feet, my post moves,” Ezeli said.
Taylor, however, grew up surrounded by basketball. His father Jeff played at Texas Tech, and with the NBA’s Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons. He eventually took to professional basketball overseas, landing in Sweden, where he raised his family.
The younger Taylor spent the last two years of high school in New Mexico, playing at his father’s alma mater. That’s where Stallings and his coaching staff watched him play (Taylor did not compete on the AAU circuit).
Grabbing international talent — whether the players are developed overseas or in the states — is becoming more of a trend at the national level. Texas guard Dogus Balbay, a native of Turkey, was named the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. St. Mary’s College, which Vanderbilt played earlier this season, is practically the Australian national team, with four players hailing from down under.
Just down the road from Vanderbilt at Lipscomb is Bosnian native Adnan Hodzic, who just finished a record-setting career. And one of his teammates and good friends, center Milos Kleut, is from neighboring Serbia.
“There are a lot of young, talented players overseas,” Taylor said. “Obviously, with globalization, this kind of opens up opportunities to actually go out there and recruit these players.”
Overcoming the language barrier helps, too. Taylor actually spoke Swedish as his first language but heard English constantly, since his father was American.
“I was probably one of the lucky ones,” he said. “As far as other countries where English isn’t as big as it is in Sweden, I can see it being a little rough on people [coming over to play in the U.S.].”
Tchiengang and Siakam, however, have had to work on their English.
“I feel like if you know the language, the transition is much smoother and much easier,” Tchiengang said. “That was a struggle for me early on because I didn’t know English. I knew a few words, but I didn’t know much. Once I got that going, it became less of a strain.”
What international players bring to the basketball court varies. Tchiengang said basketball overseas is “more physical than smooth” and thinks that fits well in college basketball, which he sees as a physical game. Players from Europe, however, seem to attract college coaches because they aren’t one-dimensional, even the bigger athletes.
“A lot of those guys, they know how to dribble,” Vanderbilt junior Lance Goulbourne said. “A.J. was very skilled for a 6-11 guy. Steve is very skilled for a guy his size. Jeff can do a lot of things. I think those guys over there, they learn the game, no matter how big or small they are, very differently. They learn to do everything, so I think that definitely helps.”
A few of those multi-faceted international players have landed at Vanderbilt. Luckily for the Commodores, they didn’t have to travel far to find them.
“At the end of the day, if you can play, they’re going to find you,” Tchiengang said. “Regardless of where you come from, they’re going to try to get the best out of you and recruit you as hard as they can.”