VU's Ezeli enjoys living above the rim

Thursday, December 17, 2009 at 11:07pm
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Johnny Lee of Lipscomb tries to send a pass past Commodores' Festus Ezeli during Vanderbilt's win over the Bisons. / Mike Strasinger for The City Paper

It might be premature to say that the sky’s the limit for Festus Ezeli, although his potential is readily apparent to just about anyone.

What is abundantly clear at this relatively early stage of his career is that the rim definitely is not the limit for Vanderbilt’s third-year sophomore center.

“Festus is one of the guys we have who can play above the rim and rebound above the rim and affect plays that go on above the rim and around the basket,” coach Kevin Stallings said.

Rather than wonder just how good he can be, the more urgent question regarding the 6-foot-11, 255-pound native of Nigeria is: When will he begin to realize his enormous potential?

The Commodores (6-3) have exactly five home games and slightly more than three weeks before they begin conference play. They begin that final stretch Saturday against Tennessee State (3-8), 3 p.m. at Memorial Gymnasium.

In eight appearances this season Ezeli has averaged 3.1 points and 3.0 rebounds in a little more than 10 minutes of playing time per contest. He has blocked 11 shots, which puts him second on the team to A.J. Ogilvy, but it’s not the level of performance he routinely has displayed since the start of the school year.

“The coaches say when I play in practice that I dominate,” Ezeli said. “They want me to do that in games. It’s coming.”

Ezeli focused on soccer back in his native country and only took up basketball fewer than five years ago – at first only on a part-time basis. He moved to the United States – specifically the Sacramento area – in 2004 but did not play high school basketball. It was as a member of the Sacramento Pharoahs, an AAU team, that he attracted the attention of Stallings’ staff as well as a number of other top programs.

He was redshirted during the 2007-08 season and then averaged 3.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 12.4 minutes in his first season of competition. When the Commodores convened for preseason workouts in preparation for its Australian exhibition tour this past August, optimism about Ezeli’s potential reached new heights.

“At some point the light’s going to go on for him that there are going to be times that he can do in games what he does in practice,” Stallings said. “I don’t think he possesses the belief system yet that he can affect games the way he affects practices.

“He’s not going to affect every game the way he affects some –or a lot – of our practices, but there are going to be some games he can affect that way. It’s going to just have to happen for him some night before he’s going to really believe it.”

Ezeli did have three blocked shots in back-to-back games at the EA Sports Maui Invitational – against Cincinnati and Chaminade – and has become a consistent rebounding presence with at least four in four of his last five appearances.

Still, for all his physical gifts, he is woefully short on game experience relative to virtually everyone he plays with and against.

“Everytime I get on the court I get more comfortable,” he said. “Even in the way I shoot free throws, I’m getting better each game I play.

“The story of my game is getting comfortable. … I think it’s coming.”

When it does, there’s no telling how high he can go.