Kevin Stallings was fed up.
The Vanderbilt coach was tired of hearing the criticism. It wasn’t coming from outside of his program, either.
One of his players, Jeffery Taylor, just wouldn’t let it go. He was second-guessing every missed shot, analyzing every off-night. He wasn’t evaluating another teammate; he was attacking himself.
So this past offseason, Stallings pulled Taylor aside.
“I talked to him long and hard,” the veteran coach said. “I thought that his success of reaching where he wants to get depended on it. He had to be nicer to himself or he was never going to fulfill what he could become as a player. He would build himself up and work himself up and then he would knock himself down. It really had nothing to do with my criticism. He was just way too hard on himself.
“He is still hard on himself but he is better than he used to be.”
Turning a corner in that department has allowed Taylor to climb the ladder on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list. Heading into Thursday’s game at Ole Miss (8 p.m., ESPN2), Taylor ranks third with 1,755 points. The senior swingman entered the season at 21st on the list but by averaging 17.6 points this season – second in the Southeastern Conference only to teammate John Jenkins — he has closed in on second.
The Commodores (17-8, 6-4) have just six regular-season games remaining and Taylor needs 137 points to pass Matt Freije (2000-04). The senior has an outside chance to catch all-time leading scorer Shan Foster, who racked up 2,011 from 2004-08.
“It is something that I’ve always been able to do,” Taylor said of scoring. “Before I came here I used to use my athletic abilities to get to the basket and get points around the basket. But since I’ve been here I’ve been able to develop a pretty good jump shot as well. The more weapons you have the easier it becomes to score the ball. But it has never been a priority.”
At 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, Taylor possesses the build, along with the athleticism, to have his way offensively.
The son of former NBA player, Jeff Taylor, he grew up in Norrkoping, Sweden before moving to New Mexico to play at his father’s alma mater. He became the all-time leading scorer at Hobbs High School, where he averaged 30 points as a senior.
Thus, he came to Vanderbilt with much fanfare and started every game except one out of 123. Yet, he never ended the season leading the Commodores in scoring as lulls seemed to get the best of him. A year ago, he failed to score at least 10 points in eight games. In five of those he scored five or fewer, including only four in an opening round NCAA Tournament loss to Richmond.
“He is wildly talented and I think that the first three years of his career, namely last year, people got frustrated with that,” Stallings said. “People got frustrated at seeing the talent and then seeing some of the inconsistencies with which he played. But Jeff has dialed up his maturity to another level. He has dialed up his consistency to a much, much higher level. He certainly has played like one of the best players in the SEC all season long.”
This year, Taylor, again only behind Jenkins, has been the most consistent player on the floor. He has scored at least 10 points in 24 of 25 games. In six, he has scored more than 20 points, topped by a career-high 30-point performance against Davidson in December.
In SEC games, he leads the league in scoring (17.7 ppg) and 3-point shooting (56.8 percent).
“He is maintaining his aggressiveness,” forward Lance Goulbourne said. “Jeff is an elite athlete and it is very hard to guard him. He is a matchup problem for everybody.”
Taylor continues to be a complete player and “the best defensive player we have,” according to Stallings. His 37 steals lead the team and already are more than he had in any of his previous three years. He ranks ninth all-time with 137.
He is also moving up the career charts in rebounds (eighth), free throws made (fifth) and free throws attempted (fourth).
In an area less charted, Goulbourne notes another area of improvement – vocal leadership. Soft-spoken by nature, Taylor is voicing his concerns more, speaking to his teammates before and during games. A couple weeks ago, Stallings turned to Taylor for the halftime speech.
“When I feel like I need to say something I don’t shy away from saying it,” he said. “I laugh and play around a lot but when it comes to basketball I’ll be quiet until I have something to say. Usually when I have something to say, people will listen to me.”
As his teammates soak in his advice, Taylor continues to heed the words of his coach.
“I always was my biggest critic,” he said. “[Stallings] always told me you should strive to be great but there is nothing wrong with just doing good sometimes. You don’t have to always be great. When something bad happens, you just have to forget about it and move onto the next play. I think with maturity throughout the years, it has just helped me a lot. You grow up and you see things in a different perspective than what you did four years ago.”