The games are supposed to be the reward for all the hard, gritty, physically demanding practices. Vanderbilt freshman center Josh Henderson understands that. So he battles through the grinding workouts and waits for his chance to get on the court.
But Henderson’s first collegiate game is still a year away. He is one of three Commodores who have opted to redshirt this season, trading a year of practice, not play, for an extra year of eligibility down the road. Henderson and fellow freshman James Siakam are watching from the bench — both made the decision to redshirt on their own.
In addition, forward Darshawn McClellan (see story below) decided just prior to the first exhibition game in November to redshirt his senior season.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings believes it’s the first time in his 12 years with the program that he’s had three scholarship players redshirt in the same season.
“It’s an unusual set of circumstances in some regards,” Stallings said. “We had a couple freshmen that we thought would have a better chance later, and we’re excited about those guys.”
While the waiting brings anxiety and eagerness, it’s a little tougher because injury has left the door open for opportunity. Though they haven’t missed any games, the injury bug has bothered 6-foot-11 Festus Ezeli (knee) and 6-9 Steve Tchiengang (ankle), slicing into game minutes.
And heading into last week’s game at Mississippi State, starting junior forward Andre Walker had missed 10 games due to mononucleosis and a high ankle sprain. The latter injury has been more severe than expected, and Walker said he expects to be out for another two weeks.
That cuts into a nine-man rotation Stallings likes to run, leaving him with just three walk-ons and one scholarship player (sophomore guard Jordan Smart) beyond that.
“There’s always the ‘what if’ game,” Henderson said. “Of course, there are times where you feel like you can come in and help, and you’re sitting there.”
The 6-foot-11, 220-pound Henderson saw the writing on the wall with Ezeli and Tchiengang in front of him. Even though he graduated from Cave Spring High School in Roanoke, Va., as the school’s all-time leader in rebounds and blocks, he decided it would be best to wait.
“Josh has already gotten stronger, banging with me every day. It can’t be easy,” Ezeli, who redshirted his freshman season, said laughing.
For Siakam, the extra year is helping him on and off the court. The 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward played just one year of basketball in his home country of Cameroon before attending Brehm Preparatory School in Illinois, where he averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks a game.
Like Henderson, Siakam wants to take advantage of his fifth year at Vanderbilt and possibly pursue a master’s degree in economics. “I will definitely try to get everything out of here,” he said. As for basketball, he had offers from Marquette, Illinois, Florida and UCLA, among others. Still, Siakam didn’t believe he was as polished as he could be.
“I was struggling. It’s a different system. Coming from high school, coming from Cameroon, I didn’t have much experience in basketball,” Siakam said. “I didn’t know a lot of things in basketball — plays and stuff like that. Really it wasn’t organized back home."
Stallings cautioned against expecting immediate results next season, especially on a team that should again be loaded with talent. The real benefit, he said, will come during their senior seasons.
“I don’t think you can see how it is helping them right now,” he said. “What you’re doing is you’re trading this year for their fifth year. I think what you’ll see in that fifth year is the benefit.”
Who will stay and who will go
Vanderbilt will be without Joe Duffy and Chris Meriwether next season. That much is known. But beyond the departure of the two senior walk-ons, who will stay or go remains unclear.
Starting junior forward Jeffery Taylor (14.8 points per game) is talented and athletic enough to test the NBA waters and declare for the draft early. If he leaves, that could free up some minutes for other Commodores, such as Darshawn McClellan.
The 6-foot-7 senior forward is redshirting this season, hoping he can have “the ultimate, best senior season that I picture for myself.”
The native of Fresno, Calif., averaged more than 15 minutes a game his first two years at Vanderbilt but saw his playing time cut in half last year.
Just two players departed from last year’s team, leaving a stacked squad primed to contend again this season.
McClellan insisted that what stood in front of him wasn’t the issue. He said the extra year is allowing him to make the transition to the guard position and become a better shooter.
Starting forward Andre Walker’s future is cloudy, too. Due to an early season bout with mononucleosis and a high ankle sprain that has him sidelined, the junior has played in just eight games this year.
While he’s eager to get back this winter, he’s uncertain about next year. He said what Taylor and other teammates decide to do could affect his decision.
“One of the main options was going to graduate school, using my last year up here,” said Walker, who will graduate in May.
Walker admitted basketball hasn’t been the same since his mother, Jane, died two years ago from cardiac arrest, shortly after her second lung transplant. Prior to this season he changed his jersey number from 24 to 54 — his mom’s age when she died.
“It is a little different when you look in the stands and can’t see your mom anymore,” Walker said. “It’s just a little different. Unfortunately, I have to get used to it. It’s part of life.”