John Jenkins insists he doesn’t hear the crowd. In fact, when things are going particularly well, Vanderbilt’s freshman guard doesn’t see much of anything, either.
“It seems like it’s dark,” he said. “Everything is dark but the rim. It’s kind of a weird feeling. … It always [starts with] my first shot, and it’s definitely a good feeling [when it happens].”
It is on just such nights that Jenkins, a high school All-American at Station Camp and one of the most celebrated recruits in Vanderbilt history, becomes lights-out as a shooter. It’s the potential for such performances that lights up the crowd whenever he’s on the floor at Memorial Gymnasium.
In short, Jenkins has helped make the jump shot sexy again along West End Avenue. There’s no better indication of that than the buzz that comes from the seating area — at home, at least — the moment he gets his hands on the ball on the offensive end.
“When he shoots it, everybody expects it to go in, including me,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “That’s what happens. … It’s Shan Foster, it’s [Tennessee’s Chris] Lofton, it’s [Kentucky’s Jodie] Meeks — it’s guys that have a special ability to put the ball in the basket, and people start getting excited about it.”
Given that Vanderbilt is one of three NCAA Division I programs that have made at least one 3-point shot every game since the rule was added, it would be understandable if Commodores’ fans started to take that aspect of the game for granted.
As recently as 2007-08, they saw the aforementioned Foster set the school’s single-season and career records for 3-pointers made.
Still, there is a certain novelty about what is happening at the moment. Every Jenkins jumper is a cause for celebration and a reason to look forward to the next one.
Through the first 15 games of the season, he had made a team-high 37 overall and was successful on 47.4 percent of his attempts.
“Whenever I get open, I’m shooting,” he said. “That’s what they expect me to do. I’m not trying to force shots or do anything out of the ordinary, just make shots when I’m open.
“When I first got here, I was always shooting on the line. I did that in high school too a lot — I just shot wherever I got the ball. Now I’m trying to work on that and make sure I’m behind the [3-point] line when I shoot.”
More often than not, it is the imaginary line 10 feet off the floor rather than the one drawn on the floor 20 feet, 9 inches from the hoop [longer in the NBA] that serves as the barrier between ordinary basketball and the highlight reel moment that lifts spectators out of their seats.
The slam dunk most often is the defining moment in basketball games. It is the home run, the long touchdown run, the hole-in-one — the thing that will have people talking the following day at school or in the office.
“[The dunk] is definitely one of the most crowd-pleasing plays,” sophomore forward Jeffery Taylor, an accomplished and consistent dunker for the Commodores, said. “The crowd loves to see something exciting happen. I would have to say it’s one of the most exciting things that can happen on a basketball court. It just kind of excites people and gets them into the game.”
Occasionally, along comes a Larry Bird, whose jump shot is so sweet that it can’t be ignored. More often, though, it’s a Dr. J, a David Thompson, a Dominique Wilkins and — of course — a Michael Jordan, who ignite crowds and inspire imitators with their ability to soar above the rim.
Donyell Marshall tied the record for most 3-point shots made in an NBA game with 12 but likely has little recognition beyond hard-core hoops followers. Darryl Dawkins, on the other hand, broke a couple backboards in a season and earned a permanent place in NBA lore.
The only other player to make a dozen in a game is Los Angeles’ Kobe Bryant, who is better known for his high-flying artistry and even his defense.
Similarly, Duke’s J.J. Reddick only recently set the NCAA career record for 3-point shots made in a career [his final season was 2005-06], yet it’s likely that people remember more vividly the University of Houston teams that were nicknamed Phi Slamma Jamma or even former Louisville star Darrell Griffith, aka “Dr. Dunkenstein.”
“Dunking is definitely something that can get the crowd into it,” Taylor said. “It’s pretty nice to make the crowd go crazy, because it can get pretty loud in [Memorial Gymnasium].”
Given their affinity for 3-pointers (at least when Jenkins shoots them), the Commodores’ faithful have more than one reason these days to crank up the volume of their support.
For example, Vanderbilt’s conference-opening 95-87 victory over Florida included seven dunks (three by Taylor, four by A.J. Ogilvy) and seven 3-pointers, including a team-high three from Jenkins. Those accounted for 14 of the team’s 31 made field goals (45.2 percent) and provided crowd-pleasing moments — on the average — more than once every three minutes.
“They’re both momentum plays, and they’re both important,” Stallings said. “With the 3-point line, it’s too much of a weapon not to be good at it, and you need to have some guys who are good at it. Fortunately, we do.”
Last season’s top four, in terms of 3-point field goals made, returned to the Commodores for 2009-10. Still, the crowd has made it clear that it looks forward to seeing the only newcomer to the squad take that shot above all others.
For Jenkins, that’s nothing new. The only difference is in how he handles it.
“My freshman year [in high school] I was all into the crowd and trying to please them,” Jenkins said. “Now, it’s just about playing the game and trying to win.”
It’s up to those in the seats to decide when to get into it. For now, at least, they have settled on anytime Jenkins touches the ball as the right time.