Auburn Hills — The placement seemed odd. Two top-tier prep prospects heading to Vanderbilt.
Seeing an SEC school get two big commitments. Auburn, maybe. LSU, possibly. Kentucky, more likely.
But Vanderbilt? That’s supposed to be the academic school, not a basketball powerhouse.
Darius Garland and Simi Shittu were looking to shake things up in football country, giving Commodores fans something to cheer about, aside from their perennial baseball success. Both players were highly touted as freshmen last season, but Garland suffered an injury five games into the season, putting a pin in Vanderbilt’s hopes.
After a 4-0 start, the Commodores were coasting, but Garland was injured in the fifth game, a loss to Kent State. Garland missed the rest of the season and things went downhill from there, with Vanderbilt finishing 9-23 — including an 0-18 mark in the SEC.
Former Piston Jerry Stackhouse took over as the coach, but Garland and Shittu are firmly in the June 20 NBA draft, with Garland projected to be a top-five pick and Shittu a second-round possibility, by most projections.
“It was disappointing because we didn’t have our floor general. (Garland) was a focal point of the offense and got us into things and we played faster and better with him,” Shittu said. “It brought us together more as a team and we all played together and as hard as we could to win games.”
Shittu was one of six prospects the Pistons hosted for a predraft workout on Thursday. After averaging 10.9 points and 6.7 rebounds in his only year at Vanderbilt, Shittu was convinced that he was ready to head to the NBA.
At 6-9 1/2 with a 7-1 1/2 wingspan, he could be a hidden gem for a team, but he’s not noted for his shooting or defense; rather, it’s his athleticism and versatility that have some scouts interested. The size and skill set are a commodity in the NBA, with teams looking to add those players for their all-around ability.
“There are lots of guys 6-9 and 6-10 who can dribble and make plays for others and rebound and have a high motor,” Shittu said. “Guys like Pascal Siakam, Giannis (Antetokounmpo), and Ben Simmons who have found a niche in the NBA. I feel like my game is similar to theirs and this is the right time for me.”
Shittu said he considered going back to Vanderbilt for another year after the mediocre season and he considered the educational value of a degree from Vanderbilt but in the end, opted for the opportunity to fulfill his dream of playing in the NBA.
Having grown up in Ontario, Shittu is the next in an increasing line of Canadian prospects, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jamal Murray, R.J. Barrett and others. He was a Raptors fan when he was younger, but he liked LeBron James, which overtook the Canadian loyalty.
More concerning, though, is his NBA stock, which didn’t get a big boost at the NBA combine in Chicago last month. He had some up-and-down performances in the scrimmages but is looking to turn some heads in his individual workouts.
He had one with the Hornets, among his five, including Thursday. With two weeks remaining until draft day, he’ll look to move into the second round so that he won’t become a G-League regular, moving between the NBA and its development league.
“Players who came out the G-League are playing well in the NBA. I’m not looking to go to the G-League or anything; I’m trying to be in the NBA,” he said. “As a young guy, I know a lot of guys jump back and forth for their first couple of years in the G-League to develop and gain confidence.
“That’s a good option for young guys and a good reason for guys like me and other guys who came out early.”