By Chris Dortch
Vanderbilt senior Jeffery Taylor began preparing for Saturday night’s showdown against Kentucky last summer.
Perhaps Taylor didn’t have the exact scenario in mind—ESPN GameDay, The Wildcats’ No. 1 ranking in both major polls - but three times a day, every day, Taylor clocked in at the Commodores’ practice facility to shoot 3-pointers, hundreds of them, in preparation for games just like Saturday’s matchup with the Wildcats.
Long considered a next-level athlete
, Taylor’s mission was to force opposing defenses to respect his 3-point stroke as much as his ability to attack the rim. If he could do that, Taylor believed, he could make himself as close to un-guardable as any player in the Southeastern Conference.
Twenty-four games into his final season in Nashville, it’s statistically apparent that Taylor’s hard work over the summer has paid dividends even he couldn’t have imagined. Taylor, 1 of 11 from 3-point range as a sophomore, has made 44 of 92 this season, an off-the-charts success ratio of 47.8 percent.
“Those are John Jenkins-like numbers,” said Vanderbilt assistant coach Tom Richardson, referring to the Commodore junior considered by many to be the best shooter in the college game.
Actually, Taylor’s percentage is better than Jenkins’ (.443), though the latter has tossed up far more attempts (201) from behind the arc and continues to lead the nation in made 3-pointers per game (3.9). But for Taylor, a player who for his first two seasons had been almost reluctant to let fly from 3, 47.8 percent is scary good.
“The great thing [about Taylor’s improved 3-point accuracy] is he’s still taking the ball to the basket effectively, and he’s making plays for others offensively,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “He’s still getting to the foul line. He’s doing a better job of converting when he gets in the lane. He’s finding people when he gets into the lane, which has been a big help to our offense.”
Taylor’s newfound confidence in his 3-point stroke has presented serious issues for opponents assigned the task of trying to contain him. If they respect Taylor’s ability to get to the rim, as they have for the last three seasons, they now run the risk of getting burned from deep.
“That’s a daunting task for any defender,” Richardson said. “He’s so good at getting to the rim that, boy, if now you’ve got to respect his shot, that’s a tough cover.”
Taylor learned the value of hard work from his father Jeff, who played in the NBA (Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons), and later extended his career by playing in Sweden. The younger Taylor grew up watching his dad in the gym, fine-tuning every facet of his game.
After his junior season, Taylor assessed his own considerable game, and it wasn’t difficult to pinpoint the area that was lacking. He couldn’t wait to get to work.
“Usually when I put my mind to something, and I really want to get better at it, I’m going to do whatever it takes to do it,” Taylor said. “What I did during the summer was really work on my shooting motion, making sure I shot it the same way every time.”
Toward the end of the summer, Taylor’s efforts had produced results, as he realized during one mid-afternoon shooting session.
“It felt like every shot was going to go in,” Taylor said.
Even as he’s filled in the one hole in his offensive game, Taylor has maintained the package of other skills that have long intrigued NBA scouts. He’s a good passer and rebounds his position well, but his strength is probably his ability to lock down opponents on the defensive end.
“He’s got really good size for his position,” Stallings said. “He’s generally as fast as any player on the court. He generally can jump higher than anyone on the court. He has great ability to change directions and slide his feet.
“So you start throwing a great body, with great length and great athleticism and then great mental toughness towards defensive play and it just makes for a long night going against the guy.”
Playing defense was another lesson Taylor learned from his father.
“He built that mentality in me because he was the same way as a player,” Taylor said. “He took a lot of pride on playing defense and not letting guys score. He always told me that. Defense was like a pride thing. If you have the athletic ability, it’s just a matter of pride to not let the other person score on you. So for me I’ve always taken a lot of pride in keeping the player I’m guarding from scoring.”
Taylor, a long-armed 6-foot-7, was blessed with the physical dimensions and athleticism to become an elite defender. What didn’t come naturally was perimeter shooting. Taylor knew there was only one way to turn that weakness into a strength.
“I’m a pretty stubborn person,” Taylor said, “and usually when I put my mind to something, and I really want to get better at it, I put the time in to do it. And it usually happens for me. I’m going to stay in the gym, and I’m going to work at it and I’m going to work at it and I’m going to work at it.
“I got up a ton of shots over the summer. And when you see the ball go in enough, that automatically builds confidence.”