Until the summer of 2007, Festus Ezeli never played traditional organized basketball. All that changed when Ezeli drew attention from college recruiters while playing AAU basketball for the Sacramento Pharaohs that summer.
Ezeli eventually chose Vanderbilt over Florida, Connecticut, West Virginia, Minnesota, Pacific, UC-Santa Barbara, Nevada, Creighton, South Florida and UNLV.
“I chose Vanderbilt because it was a great academic institution. Being there for four years, I definitely grew by being able to manage my time taking care of my school work,” said Ezeli. “On the court, my coach (Kevin Stallings) was one of the main reasons why I chose the school. He’s very passionate about the game. He’s a great teacher and he really taught me. When I got there I was pretty much a kid in every aspect of the word and I would be late to a lot of things or lose my stuff. He helped me grow as a man. He was kind of like a father figure with me.”
According to Ezeli, Stallings groomed him from a raw and unpolished player into a serviceable center that can block shots and score inside.
“My whole game pretty much started at Vanderbilt,” said Ezeli. “He really helped develop me as a player. The part of the game he really helped me develop the most was my defense because that’s the part of my game that stands out a lot. He gave me a lot of defensive principles while I was down there. He polished me in that sense because I never had a coach really before him.”
Thanks to his education from Vanderbilt professors and the lessons learned in practice with Stallings, Ezeli feels ready for life in the NBA on and off the court.
“I got my degree. That’s first and foremost, so I know I’m ready for anything else. Basketball is a hobby and I know that it’s going to end someday and I know I’m ready for life outside basketball as well. I’m older as well, so I’m probably a little more mature. Spending four years helped me by going through more things like adversity than some guys. I think I’m a little more prepared."
The education for Ezeli continues on the basketball court with his agency, Billy Duffy Associates, in Santa Barbara.
“We’ve been working on my footwork, working on my offense, my hands, and working on rebounding skills. We’ve been working on my all around game really,” said Ezeli.
The work in Santa Barbara has paid off for Ezeli after a solid showing at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago.
“I just went out there and showed them what I bring to the table, which is defense," said Ezeli. "I have a pretty good motor, I run hard, and I’m just a big presence in the paint really. I play defense and I can score on the block. I also have a developing jump shot. I just showed them everything I could and it was a good showing."
According to sources, Ezeli has moved back into the late first round for teams looking to add depth in their frontcourt.
“I know I’m a late first round guy. I think there’s been talk of the second round, but a lot of it was just talk about my health and people wondering if I was healthy or not. When I show them I’m healthy I think I’ll be a late first round draft pick,” said Ezeli. “You could see towards the end of the year I was back to my normal self. I was jumping and rebounding like I usually do."
The Celtics, Warriors, Bulls, Heat, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Hawks, Magic and Pacers have been amongst the teams to work out Ezeli.
According to Ezeli, if one of those teams drafts him, he’ll be worth a guaranteed contract as a first round selection.
“I really work hard, that’s what I do. I’m always going to work to improve. I’m going to do whatever my coaches ask of me to do. Ask my coach, he’ll tell you whatever he asked me to do I did. If a coach asks me to run through a wall, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to play hard for them and I’m going to do my best out on the court,” said Ezeli.
On draft night June 28th, Ezeli’s basketball journey that began in the summer of 2007 with the AAU Sacramento Pharaohs will take an unexpected turn for the better.
“I’m excited. It’s a blessing to be a part of this process. I know if look back five years ago when I started off at Vanderbilt and look forward, I never thought I was going to be here. I’m just looking forward to landing with whatever team I end up at,” said Ezeli.