The more he practiced, the more Dai-Jon Parker gained confidence.
He eagerly waited to show off refined shooting skills. He didn’t disappoint when that opportunity came Tuesday.
Vanderbilt’s shooting guard set career-highs in points (16), rebounds (six), assists (four) and minutes (38) in his first career start. This seldom seen, well-rounded offensive play by the defensive-minded sophomore provided a spark for the Commodores in an overtime loss to Ole Miss.
If Parker can be consistent in that regard it would be a huge lift for scoring-challenged Vanderbilt, which continues Southeastern Conference play on Saturday at South Carolina (12:30 p.m., SEC Network).
“It is really important to keep him going,” freshman guard Kevin Bright said. “He is a scorer. I think when he is on the court we are way better. We are running faster. He is giving us more energy on the court.”
Parker's inclusion was one of three changes coach Kevin Stallings made to the starting lineup before playing Ole Miss. He, freshman forward Sheldon Jeter and sophomore center Shelby Moats started in place of Kyle Fuller, Bright and Josh Henderson.
Stallings plans to stick with the starting five of those three, Rod Odom and Kedren Johnson against the Gamecocks (11-5, 1-2).
After going scoreless in a season-low 18 minutes against Arkansas, Parker nearly matched his season point total (19) with his best offensive performance of his career against the Rebels. He made five of nine shots and two 3-pointers, including a game-tying trey with 1:02 left in regulation.
“It adds some versatility because you don’t want to be known as a one-dimensional player,” Parker said. “The jumper was working. It was working pretty well. But I also tried to get to the basket, get to the free-throw line because I’m trying to help my team get better at that.”
He shared in his teammates’ ongoing struggles at the free-throw line. The Commodores (6-9, 0-3), who rank 344 out of 345 Division I teams with a 56.8 free-throw shooting percentage, made just 10 of 23 against Ole Miss. Parker was four of seven and missed two crucial shots from the foul line with Vanderbilt clinging to a 72-69 lead with 3:26 left in regulation.
His biggest gaffe, though, came in an area he usually excels – defense. Armed with the task of guarding sharpshooter Marshall Henderson, Parker let him slip away when the Commodores needed a stop. After Bright’s go-ahead 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left, Ole Miss inbounded the ball and Jarvis Summers quickly got it to an open Henderson, who sunk a game-tying 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Instead of immediately draping Henderson, Parker said he got ambitious and swarmed Summers, who was slow to collect the inbounds pass.
“It was my guy,” Parker said of Henderson. “There was a miscommunication on men [to defend] because the ball was being rolled up the court [to Summers]. So I believed no one was picking him up. I wanted to try to get him to pick [the ball] up fast enough and hopefully I get back to my man. But it didn’t work quite the way I wanted it to.”
Parker’s presence on the floor, though, is much welcomed.
He missed the first eight games due to a suspension for a violation of non-academic team rules then quickly was thrust back onto the floor, coming off the bench in his first six games. The Baton Rouge, La., product, who was twice named the defensive player of year in high school, was assigned to shutting down the opponent’s top guard.
With his showing on Tuesday, Parker will be asked to contribute more on the offensive end as the Commodores average an SEC-low 59.1 points.
“For anybody to jump up and get 16 us for right now is a huge benefit,” Stallings said. “And he is one of our better defenders. So hopefully he’ll continue to play that way.”