Exclusive: Preseason Q&A with Coach Kevin Stallings

The Black & Gold Standard is a VandyRadio sports blog featuring nuanced commentary and advanced statistical breakdowns following every Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball game and throughout the year. Robbie Weinstein of The Homefield Advantage will be bringing you the best analysis of Commodore basketball as the team looks to build on the success of last season’s NIT appearance. Check out The Black & Gold Standard for all kinds of new content as the Dores fight through the 2015-16 schedule. All stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.

Last week, I got a chance to talk with Coach Kevin Stallings along with The Vanderbilt Hustler sports editor Ben Weinrib and sports reporters Matt Lieberson and Isabel Futral. Coach Stallings provided some fantastic insight into the state of this year’s team, some of which was included in this week’s Hustler basketball preview. I would encourage all readers to check out the great content on vanderbilthustler.com/sports, as I thought this issue was a particularly strong one. Here’s the full transcript from the interview.

VH: You excited?

KS: Sort of. This is actually, this time of the year might be the most enjoyable time of the year to be a coach because there are no games in the way to bring an inordinate amount of stress. The games are coming, but the time to put your team together and figure out who you are and what you can be and that kind of stuff, it’s really nice right now because you’re able to do it without a ton of fanfare and just sort of get isolated and be with each other. I probably like this time of year as much as any. This part is exciting. If there’s any fun involved, this is where the fun is. And then, when the games start, the fun stops, for me.

VH: I was just talking to Damian and obviously he didn’t really declare, but said he’s gonna go into the draft next year, so how did he go about that decision and how involved were you in that?

KS: Well, he went about it very maturely and basically what happened was last February I called him into my office and said, “I’m hearing some good things about you relative to the NBA,” and I said, “Tell me what you’re thinking,” and he said, “I’m not going this year.” He said, “I will go next year if the climate is still the same and it’s still conducive for me to come out,” and I think that’s still his plan. He has every intention of it being a conducive time for him to come out. He thought about it, told me what his intentions were, what his plans were, never really deviated from that and, like I said, it was handled very maturely. So he’s on track, he’s doing what he should be doing.

VH: How involved were you in that decision?

KS: I don’t know that anybody was really involved in it other than he just said, “I’m not going this year and I’m going next year if I can.” So I don’t know that there was really any place to be involved with the decision. He told me what he wanted to do and asked me if I thought that was appropriate and I told him that I thought that was probably very wise and very intelligent. Now, I don’t think that what I had to say had a lot of impact or bearing on his decision because I think he had already made the decision, but Damian’s a thoughtful, well-thought-out kid. He didn’t just come by that decision lightly and so he had put some time in to thinking about it. Again, I agreed with him because I think he could have been a first round draft choice last year, and he told me he wanted to get a year closer to his degree and come back. He said, “I don’t think I’m ready,” and I agreed. But I didn’t say, “I don’t think you’re ready,” he said, “I don’t think I’m ready and I’d rather come back and be more ready and be closer to my degree” and that sort of thing.

VH: Has he looked more ready so far this year?

KS: A lot more. A lot more.

VH: Do you have sort of a rule of thumb of when you suggest people may be ready to go to the NBA?

KS: Yes, if they’re guaranteed to be a first round draft choice and if that first NBA contract can essentially secure their financial future, I mean like, permanently secure it, then I’m all for them going. There are no guarantees, if you’re not drafted in the first round in the NBA Draft there are no guarantees to it, so anybody who’s a borderline late first-early second, I’m not for those guys going. If you’re rock solid in the first round and that first contract’s gonna financially set your life up, then I’m all for it.

VH Jeff Roberson, it sounds like he’s gonna play a lot of small ball 4, what do you think that those smaller lineups do for your team?

KS: They create good matchups for us, especially in a lot of nonconference games. It also gives us a way to be quicker and faster and maybe pick the speed of the game up if we need to on a night where we’re sluggish or struggling or something like that. I think it will be well-suited to Jeff, especially from an offensive standpoint for him because Jeff’s a good driver of the basketball, he’s a good shooter and so 4-men are gonna have to come out and play him and that’s gonna give him some opportunities to attack the goal that he might not otherwise have if he was playing the 3.

VH: Defensively and as far as rebounding, what does he have to do to make sure you can keep those lineups on the floor?

KS: Well, I think that he’s just gotta be able to neutralize the guy he’s guarding. He’ll do a good job of boxing out, and he’ll be a little bit undersized but we’ll double team the post sometimes if we need to if he’s playing against a guy that’s good in there. So we’ll have some ways to combat the thing that could pose potential problems for him, but he’ll create some issues for other people and that’s what we’re looking for.

VH: As far as the scrimmage, I don’t know how much you’re willing to talk about that..

KS: I’m not.

VH: It seemed last year like one of Jeff’s biggest strengths was perimeter defense, how would you say his interior defense has improved the last couple months.

KS: Ah, you know what, that’s a work in progress, he’s got some work to do there. Understanding how to be physical without fouling, how to understand the physicality of the game and not just fouling as the result of it. Jeff’s gotta use his quickness. He’s quick, he’s a quick guy in there and he’s gotta use his quickness and his speed and his feet and his head and not rely on trying to muscle up against everybody. There’s an art to that, and that’s something he’s in the process of learning.

VH: So I was talking to D’Jery about how he’s an international student and he’s relatively new to basketball. What kind of learning process has that been for him?

KS: Well, I don’t know, he’d be a better person to answer that than I would. But he’s very raw and yet very full of potential and reminds me very much of when Festus Ezeli was here. Maybe he’s a year ahead of Festus, I mean, Festus when he got here didn’t know anything. D’Jery knows.. enough and needs to learn a lot more and will learn a lot more. But never met a kid who was more interested in learning, had a greater desire to learn and get better. He’ll make his mark here much like Festus did, and it may take him a while like it did Fes. Fes was here for five years and it was just the last two that he really impacted. But D’Jery will have a great impact on our team at some point in his career and we’re real excited about him.

VH: You’ve recruited a lot of international guys in your career here, is there a reason for that?

KS: You know, only one that I can remember was actually recruited from another country. Most of them, like D’Jery, went to high school here, they just happened to be foreign students and were here for some reason or another. So there’s never really been any intent behind it. If they’re good enough kids, good enough players, and good enough students then we want ‘em, I don’t care where they’re from. But most of them have been American high school students in some way or form or fashion but just happened to be from other countries.

VH: How far along in his progression would you say he is to earning consistent minutes?

KS: I have no way of knowing that yet. He’s not there yet, he’s not where he’s gonna get a ton of minutes right now, but I think he understands that. But he’s gonna get a ton of minutes at some point. I keep making the comparison to Festus, but along about Festus’s redshirt sophomore year, so it was his third year here, he started showing some dominance in practices. It was very apparent at that time that, “Ok, he’s going to be really good. We don’t know when, but it’s going to happen.” D’Jery has already given us reason to see and believe that at some point it’ll all come together. Now, it’s not there yet. But it will get there.

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