By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Djery Baptiste may stand 6-10, but he never wants to be mistaken for a gentle giant.
Baptiste’s performances in Vanderbilt’s last two games have stuck in his craw during the past week. In a 71-60 loss at South Carolina on Jan. 6, forward Chris Silva – who matched up with Baptiste – scored 27 points to lead the Gamecocks to a win. Then Tennessee forward Grant Williams notched a career-high 37 points in the Dores’ 92-84 loss to the Volunteers on Tuesday.
The native Haitian isn’t solely responsible for all those points. But with each ensuing workout, Baptiste has embraced the burden on his own.
“I’m a competitor,” Baptiste said. “You can’t let someone come into your house and be complacent about it. I learn and move on – it’s a bounce-back mentality. I was in the gym last night thinking, when is the next game, when is the next practice? ‘You’re not going to do this to me again, I promise you.’ That’s the way I’m feeling right now.”
To say Baptiste is fired up would be an understatement. The redshirt sophomore is a key piece to Vanderbilt’s relatively inexperienced front line, a group that includes freshman Ejike Obinna and sophomore Clevon Brown. That trio must shore up its deficiencies as the Commodores prepare to host No. 21/20 Kentucky on Saturday at Memorial Gym (3 p.m. CT on ESPN).
Baptiste is working tirelessly to grow beyond the raw – yet physically imposing – freshman who arrived at Vanderbilt ahead of the 2015 season. He redshirted his true freshman campaign, honing his fundamentals behind All-SEC centers and future NBA players Damian Jones and Luke Kornet. In 2016-17, Baptiste played in all 35 games and averaged 1.8 points and 1.9 rebounds in just under eight minutes per contest. Though his impact was minimal, his immense potential showed beyond the numbers.
This season, Baptiste has embraced a larger role as a leader in the post. He has earned six starts and chipped 4.4 points and 4.9 boards per game. Baptiste scored a career-high 13 points in a win over UNC Asheville on Nov. 17. In last week’s loss to South Carolina, he contributed 10 points and five rebounds.
The once-raw talent admits his learning curve is no longer as steep.
“It’s just coming to understand the game,” Baptiste said. “I didn’t grow up playing basketball in Haiti. This year, I’ve come to understand the game a lot better. It’s about being comfortable in the post, getting my back to the basket, moving my feet better. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m already more comfortable.”
Senior Jeff Roberson, an undersized forward often tasked with banging around in the post, said Baptiste and his fellow big men can’t get bogged down in the moment.
“If you trust that it will come to games, it will come naturally,” Roberson said. “It does take time. You’ve just got to get enough reps to where, when you’re out there, you just play. Right now, [Baptiste and Brown] might be thinking too much. It’ll come. Once they make a couple of plays and believe in themselves, it will come.”
“Against South Carolina, I got an and-one early, and that got me going,” Baptiste said. “I was like, I’m ready. Sometimes that all it takes. At the end, I didn’t even know I had 10 points.”
Baptiste expects to remain an important piece to the Commodores’ puzzle on both ends of the floor. Kentucky ventures to Memorial Gym as one of the SEC’s better defensive teams, and the Wildcats are particularly dangerous on the offensive glass. Vanderbilt will need Baptiste’s presence in both areas.
But the Commodores also need Baptiste to provide a spark if they hope to reverse their fortunes in the SEC. The bulky big man is up to the challenge.
“That’s something that I’m starting to realize: sometimes you’ve got to learn to flip the switch at game time,” Baptiste said. “For me, it’s coming. But I’ve got to make it work quickly, because there’s no time to waste now.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.