Letters From Camp are my dispatches from this weekend's Nike Skills Camps in Chicago, with one last big recap to come later today.
CHICAGO -- There was a running deadpan joke among the NBA scouts at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy, one I heard in at least two different forms during the two hours of the camp's open media availability at Attack Athletics here Saturday:
"Who's the tall kid without a number on? He's not on the roster, but I think we'd draft him first round."
The "tall kid" is, of course, Kevin Durant, who is unfortunately no longer available to NBA teams: He was drafted No. 2 overall by the Seattle Supersonics in 2007, after which he quickly became rookie of the year, the youngest scoring champion in NBA history and one of the most potentially transformative young stars to enter the game since LeBron James.
The 22-year-old Durant -- who would have been a rookie last season had he stayed in school all four years -- doesn't just coach at the skills academy that bears his name. He runs the drill circuit with campers (a who's who of alluring collegiate wing players) practicing one-on-one moves, footwork, screen cuts, and the fundamentals of receiving the ball, among other things. He then eagerly hops into the five-on-five drills that close the camp's first night.
It's fascinating to watch, this NBA superstar using his own camp to get some extra gym time in, almost like he doesn't see the 40-foot poster bearing his likeness on the gym's massive end wall.
It also means it's hard for one of the actual camp attendees to look like the best player on the floor. But give Vanderbilt's Jeffery Taylor credit: For one night, he wasn't all that far behind.
Taylor wasn't flawless Sunday, but he did a lot of things to make those apathetic NBA scouts take notice. His combination of ball skills and penetrating ability comes packaged in a wide, well-built 6-foot-6 frame. His athleticism allowed him to turn one drill -- in which campers were asked to catch the ball, pivot, and lay it in with their opposite hand -- into a surprisingly impressive dunkfest. When campers were shown a series of three- and four-stage ball moves ("OK, this is a crossover, then a stepback, then a BIG step through the lane, and then we want a clean finish over coach, who will be standing on that chair near the goal. Everyone got it?"), perhaps only North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes and Kentucky guard Doron Lamb picked up the instruction with the same immediate ease as the Vanderbilt swingman.
It's that athleticism, mixed with intuitive ability, that made Taylor a potential first round NBA prospect in 2011. The only thing keeping Taylor from initiating a full-on NBA scout slobberfest is his shooting. As a freshman, Taylor shot 22 percent from three. As a sophomore -- this is where things get ugly -- that percentage dipped all the way down to .091; Taylor attempted a mere 11 3-pointers all season and made only one.
During his junior season, another strong Vanderbilt campaign that ended in another surprising first-round NCAA tournament upset, Taylor massively improved both his willingness to shoot from his range and his ability to do so. He attempted 113 shots from beyond the arc, making 39 and improving his three-point field goal percentage to a perfectly respectable 35 percent.
Still, a few of the gathered scouts maintained their concerns about Taylor's shooting. One scout I asked said he "really liked" Taylor, but that he had to be a better shooter; another looked at me and made the wrist-flicking follow-through motion, which I took as universal scout sign language for "can he shoot?"
To be fair to Taylor, his team hasn't often needed his shooting. In 2011, sophomore guard John Jenkins emerged as one of the nation's best long-range threats; Jenkins posted a 58.4 effective field goal percentage, a true shooting percentage of 64.0 and an overall offensive rating of 123.5, the nation's 30th most efficient mark. Forward Festus Ezeli is the team's best interior threat, a big, physical bruiser who sets up shop on the low block and muscles defenders into submission. Ezeli is the grinding banger; Jenkins, a candidate for SEC player of the year in 2011, is the sharpshooting star whose name you're most likely to know.
That dynamic could explain Taylor's tendency -- or at least his perceived tendency -- to float aimlessly for stretches of games. To the scout's eye, Taylor is good at a lot of things but not great at any of them. He doesn't have a singularly identifiable area of the floor that he truly dominates. When he stops attacking the rim, he can get lost in the fray, and like a miniature version of LeBron James, the outsized impact he should be having outweighs the contributions he's actually making.
But shooting is still the primary issue, and to reach an NBA level, shooting is where Taylor needs to demonstrate the most improvement in the coming season. He showed some of that (in an admittedly small sample size) on Sunday, draining more than his share of high-arcing three-pointers during those aforementioned individual drills.
Still, those are long-term issues; the NBA scouts and their concerns will wait a year. In April, Taylor, along with Jenkins and Ezeli, decided to ignore the various levels of NBA draft interest in their respective talents and come back to Vanderbilt for another crack at an SEC title and an NCAA tournament run. The school announced the decision with statements from all three players, and Taylor told me the decision was made collectively among all three players. Those three are the anchors of a team that will return all five starters -- four of whom will be seniors in 2011-12 -- and is looking to do accomplish far more than the respectable SEC finishes and early tournament upsets that have come to characterize their tenure together.
In all, Taylor's individual needs as a player dovetailed nicely with his teammates' desire to compete for a spot in the Final Four. (On Monday, Georgia coach Mark Fox told the SEC coaches teleconference that he thought Vanderbilt was a serious contender in that regard.) Taylor can spend a year demonstrating that his shooting is only going to improve. In the meantime, like Pittsburgh guard Ashton Gibbs, he has to do even more of what made him a draft prospect in the first place.
Anyway, if two hours of drills on a Sunday in June is any indication -- and hey, maybe it isn't! -- Taylor might be right on the cusp of a breakthrough. At the very least, with Durant on the floor, it's hard to make an impression. The Vanderbilt guard has already done that much.