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As former Commodore Festus Ezeli marched onto Dudley Field Saturday holding the highly recognizable gold ball and basket trophy, everyone was reminded of the possibilities that exist for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball program.

Vanderbilt alumnus and current Golden State Warrior Festus Ezeli admires the Larry O'Brien Trophy on campus September 12, 2015.
Vanderbilt alumnus and current Golden State Warrior Festus Ezeli admires the Larry O’Brien Trophy on campus September 12, 2015.

This wasn’t some bench warmer getting his customary one day with the team’s trophy while the next guy up waited for him to return the hardware. Ezeli’s offensive efficiency and defensive presence for the Golden State Warriors played a large part in the Warriors’ record-breaking season and helped seal their place in the annals of the game as one of the greatest teams in NBA history.

“We’re at the pinnacle now,” Ezeli said, cradling the Larry O’Brien trophy outside the Commons Center on campus at Vanderbilt. “But once next year starts nobody remembers that.”

Ezeli’s raw stats may not appear impressive, but his impact on Golden State’s top-ranked defense was felt far and wide across the league. While Warriors starting center Andrew Bogut’s play was surprisingly uneven during the postseason, the team thrived with Ezeli in the lineup. Golden State outscored opponents by 3.6 more points per 100 possessions with Ezeli on the court compared with Bogut during the playoffs, according to

Additionally, Ezeli filled a role that is highly coveted in today’s NBA: a mobile big man with legitimate size that doesn’t need the ball offensively and will protect the rim. Opponents shot just 50.8% within 6 feet of the basket with Ezeli defending them in 2014-15, a full 8.1% below those same players’ season average from that range. This number puts Ezeli tenth in the league in “rim protection” among centers that played in at least half of their team’s games, topping the numbers of noted defensive stalwarts Tyson Chandler and Al Horford.

This came in the wake of a rough 2013-14 campaign during which Ezeli sat out injured after undergoing knee surgery. With the big man out of commission, the Warriors developed internal issues with coach Mark Jackson, who was fired after a first round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers. The fall of 2014 represented a clean slate for Ezeli as Steve Kerr took over the coaching duties and the former Dore returned to action.

“It was a hard time for me, with the injury,” Ezeli said. “One of the best days of my life was my first day back, so being able to come back with my teammates … felt very rewarding.”

The Warriors center helped limit Houston big man Dwight Howard to just 5-13 shooting in a decisive Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, while adding 12 points and 9 rebounds himself as Golden State returned to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1975. Earlier in the series, Ezeli drew rave reviews from analysts and media alike, with ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy declaring him a starting-caliber NBA center. After Bogut lost playing time due to his struggles against Cleveland’s Timofey Mozgov in the NBA Finals, Ezeli stepped up with 10 points and 4 rebounds, including a rim-rattling tip dunk late in the game, to help ice the clinching game of the series. With the way the NBA salary cap is set to explode, Ezeli stands to make more than $10 million per year in free agency next summer.

“I’m not worried about that,” Ezeli said. “As soon as the next year starts, we’re starting from zero again. As a team, we’re focused on keeping this (trophy).”

Bob Donnan, USA Today
Ezeli’s tip dunk vs. Cleveland in Game 6 of the 2015 NBA Finals served as one of the iconic moments of the series. (Bob Donnan, USA Today)

Ezeli’s triumphant return to West End coincides with the highest expectations for VU’s team since he himself patrolled the paint in Memorial Gym from 2009-2012. The former Vandy center says he sees plenty of similarities between the group he was a part of and the 2015 team.

“They’re a very talented team,” Ezeli said. “My hope for them is they go farther than us; I see those similarities and I think they can be something special.”

Naturally, comparisons have been drawn between Ezeli and Vandy’s Damian Jones, a dominating inside presence in his own right. Jones has garnered plenty of accolades over his career to date, including SEC All-freshman recognition two years ago and All-SEC first team recognition this past season. Ezeli says he’s impressed with Jones and hopes the current Commodore star will someday join him in the professional ranks.

“I told him, I need more Vanderbilt guys in the NBA; I’m tired of UNC and Kentucky taking over,” Ezeli said. “I want to be able to brag about Vanderbilt. I’m excited for him and I keep telling him to work hard; he can use me as a resource whenever he wants.”

Big things lie ahead for Ezeli, but for now he’s simply thankful for the opportunity to return to West End and share his accomplishment with the Vanderbilt community.

“These are people who saw me from the start of my career,” Ezeli said. “So to be here to celebrate a championship in the NBA with them… What more can I ask for?”

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