By Chris Dortch, for NBA.com
Posted Jan 25 2012 11:09AM
In addition to their many other duties, college basketball coaches sometimes have to play the role of amateur psychologist.
So it was last fall for Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, who for three seasons tried everything he could think of to keep notorious perfectionist Jeffrey Taylor, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound senior swingman, from beating himself up too badly over missed shots, turnovers, anything that in Taylor's mind had let down his teammates and coaches.
Occasionally, a single miscue would devolve into a sub-par game, or a sub-par stretch of games into something much worse. Here was a guy with next-level talent struggling to get out of his own way, and in the process limiting his contributions.
By worrying too much about whether he was hurting his team, Taylor was hurting his team.
Before the start of this season, Stallings called Taylor into his office and laid out a piece of advice that was brilliant in both its brevity and its profundity.
"I just told Jeff that he couldn't allow great to be the enemy of good," Stallings said. "And that good was more than acceptable a lot of the time. We would take great when we could get it, but we didn't want to feel bad about good.
"I think he listened to that and understood he could be more productive if he could just change his approach and his outlook a little bit when he did things he felt like were not up to his standard of excellence."
Halfway through his final season, it is statistically apparent that Taylor has embraced Stallings' advice. How else to describe the fact Taylor has a negative assist-to-turnover ratio yet is otherwise having his most productive season: third in the Southeastern Conference in scoring (16.9 ppg), fourth in field-goal percentage (.540) and tops in field goals per game (6.4)?
Clearly, mistakes aren't getting inside Taylor's head anymore.
There is also ample evidence that Taylor has shored up another perceived weakness. A career .296 3-point shooter coming in to this season, Taylor is making nearly half of shots from behind the arc (27-of-60, .450). Lack of a perimeter complement to go along with his other-worldly athleticism had been a knock on Taylor's game.
"Those are John Jenkins-like numbers," said Vanderbilt assistant coach Tom Richardson, referring to the Commodore junior who shoots .447 from behind the arc and is leading the nation in 3-pointers per game [3.9]. "When you consider Jeff was 1-for-11 from three as a sophomore, it's pretty incredible."
Asked to explain his success this season, Taylor, whose father Jeff played for the Houston Rockets and Detroit Pistons before finishing his pro career in Sweden, mentions maturity as a major contributing factor.
"You learn to not let small things bother you," Taylor said. "The way I am, I like to be good at what I do, and I like to do well. In the past, I might have gotten down on myself for something that really wasn't a big deal. So for me it was just my maturity level, and realizing that there will always be another play. You can't look back. You have to look forward in basketball."
Taylor's work ethic has been equally important to his improvement. Last summer, Taylor practically took up residence in the gym, launching shot after shot, hundreds a day, each one helping refine his stroke.
"Usually when I put my mind to something, and I really want to get better at it, I'm going to put in the time to do it," Taylor said. "What I did during the summer was really work on my shooting motion, making sure I shot it the same way every time."
Toward the end of the summer, Taylor's hard work had come to fruition, as he realized during one mid-afternoon shooting session.
"It felt like every shot was going to go in," Taylor said.
Taylor hasn't made every shot this season, but opponents now have to respect his 3-point stroke. The problem is if they do that, they have to contend with Taylor's ability to get to the rim.
"That's a daunting task for any defender," Richardson said. "He's so good at getting to the rim that, boy, if now you've got to respect his shot, that's a tough cover."
"The great thing [about Taylor's improved 3-point accuracy] is he's still taking the ball to the basket effectively, and he's making plays for others offensively," Stallings said. "He's still getting to the foul line. He's doing a better job of converting when he gets in the lane. He's finding people when he gets into the lane, which has been a big help to our offense."
Taylor's consistency has given opponents pause. If they focus on taking away the 3-point bombardier Jenkins, Taylor can go off, like the three-game stretch he put together in December -- 30, 21 and 29 points. And when Taylor and Jenkins are clicking at the same time, Vanderbilt is hard to beat. The Commodores, who started slowly without injured center Festus Ezeli and lost home games to Cleveland State, Xavier and Indiana State in the first month, took a seven-game winning streak into a Jan. 19 game at Alabama.
Sometimes lost amid Taylor's offensive exploits is the fact he's a lockdown defender who takes delight in smothering his opponent.
"He's been phenomenal on the defense end," Stallings said. "Almost to the point of intimidating. I don't think he intentionally tries to go out and intimidate people, but he's got all the tools to be an elite defender.
"He's got really good size for his position. He's generally as fast as any player on the court. He generally can jump higher than anyone on the court. He has great ability to change directions and slide his feet. So you start throwing a great body, with great length and great athleticism and then great mental toughness towards defensive play and it just makes for a long night going against the guy."
Again, Taylor can thank his father for instilling in him the importance of a blue-collar aspect of the game.
"He built that mentality in me because he was the same way as a player," Taylor said. "He took a lot of pride on playing defense and not letting guys score. He always told me that. Defense was like a pride thing. If you have the athletic ability, it's just a matter of pride to not let the other person score on you. So for me I've always taken a lot of pride in keeping the player I'm guarding from scoring."
Taylor's package of size, athleticism and skill hasn't been lost on NBA scouts. And neither has his willingness to accept coaching and put in the time on his own to get better.
Richardson describes Taylor's four-year ascension as "fairly dramatic."
"He came in as an athlete that played basketball," Richardson said. "Now he's a skilled basketball player with great athleticism. It's been a pretty complete transformation."
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