Festus Ezeli spent the past three weeks roaming the country, attempting to shed the unwanted label that he is injury prone.
As he worked out in front of NBA scouts, coaches, general managers and owners leading up to Thursday’s NBA Draft, the former Vanderbilt center tried to set the record straight about those aching knees.
“I’m focusing on showing them I’m healthy,” Ezeli said last week before a workout with the Dallas Mavericks. “I’m just good to play. So when they see me play and they see I’m athletic, can play defense, I can move my feet ... teams get excited about stuff like that. My explosiveness is back.”
Ezeli’s redemption tour appears to have improved his draft stock. The 6-foot-11, 255-pounder was projected to go as high as 27th in the first round to the Miami Heat in some mock drafts — up from a second-round projection a month ago.
“[NBA teams] are more interested in defense than anything,” said Ezeli, who is Vanderbilt’s all-time blocks leader with 204. “That’s the thing I bring as a constant.”
The potential landing spots of former teammates Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins have also fluctuated from late first round to early second round. A versatile defender, with the ability to drive to the rim and shoot from the perimeter, Taylor has the best chance to be the first Vanderbilt player drafted in the first round since the Chicago Bulls took Will Perdue 11th overall in 1988.
Vanderbilt has had multiple players drafted in the same year seven times but never since the league moved to a two-round format in 1989. The last Commodores player drafted was Shan Foster in 2008.
“My hope is that they get in a situation where they are on an NBA team next year,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “So many times you can be in a situation in the NBA where they have too many guaranteed contracts or where there is really not an opportunity for you. I hope they get into situations that provide opportunity and time. I’m confident if they do, they’ll all be able to stick with a team and do very well.”
Ezeli is still trying to wrap his head around the prospect of an NBA career.
Eight years ago he arrived in Sacramento, Calif., from Nigeria with aspirations to follow in his uncle’s footsteps and become a doctor. Instead, he was introduced to organized basketball, and as an unproven, raw talent he drew the attention of college coaches while on the AAU circuit in 2007.
After redshirting in 2007-08, he flew under the radar during his first two seasons at Vanderbilt. But out of the shadow of A.J. Ogilvy and in the starting lineup for the first time in 2010-11, Ezeli emerged as one of the country’s best big men. He averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds, up from 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds as a sophomore. He also shattered the school’s single-season record for blocked shots with 87.
By the end of his junior season, enough eyes were on Ezeli that he debated foregoing his senior year to declare early for the NBA Draft. Instead, he chose to return and get his degree.
“It just shows how much hard work can pay off,” Ezeli said. “I would not have put myself in this position five years ago. It’s something you dream about but you never really think ... It’s a kid’s dream.”
In reality, though, there is no room in the NBA for wobbly knees. Just ask Greg Oden, the first overall choice in 2008 who has played just 82 games, the equivalent of one season, since.
Ezeli says he is 100 percent healthy, unlike most of his senior season.
Shortly after his junior campaign ended in 2011, he underwent surgery for a ruptured patella tendon in his left knee. He was ready to return before he sprained his MCL and PCL ligaments in his right knee in practice in October, forcing him to miss the first eight games. He battled ailments — overcompensating on his left knee brought more pain — the rest of the season as he averaged just 10.1 points.
With his professional future ahead of him, Ezeli hopes perception matches reality in regard to his health.
“I kind of got a rep as a player that was injury prone, which I still don’t understand why,” Ezeli said. “My [second knee] injury was something that could happen to anybody. I tore my MCL. It happened in practice where I landed on somebody’s feet. I’m just trying to clarify that and show everybody I’m healthy again.”