Jarred Vanderbilt doesn’t fit into any kind of box. If you try to put it on one, it will jump up and find a loose bounce to grab along the way.
Vanderbilt doesn’t stand out on paper. He’s averaging about six points and nine rebounds per game this season. That’s pretty close to what he did in his only college year at Kentucky under coach John Calipari in 2018. But there’s something about his game that makes him an analysis favorite.
Those pedestrian averages in Kentucky essentially broke Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight draft model in 2018. He continues to rank as a player between 30 and 100 in several public NBA all-in-one metrics this season. There is something Vanderbilt is doing that has a big impact besides scoring points. What does the eye exam say?
“It’s Dennis Rodman with more skill.”
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This is how Calipari once described Vanderbilt while coaching him at the University of Kentucky. There’s obviously a good deal of hyperbole in there. But I’m not sure I have a better way than Calipari to describe one of the most unique players in the league.
This sequence from last season via the WolvesClips Twitter account it can only be described as a Rodman-style engine. What other big 6-9 can switch to a point guard, fall out of bounds when a shot goes up, and then pop 20 feet the other direction on a scrum headed downhill with the ball?
Like Rodman, Vanderbilt is a pain in the defensive butt with great physical and intangible tools. He regularly takes on the most difficult tasks and does as good a job as anyone in the league. Borrowing a quote from former Bulls coach Jim Boylen, it’s like a rabid dog chasing a meat truck. He is already one of the top 10 defenders with the ball at his position.
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Vanderbilt eats casual for breakfast. When players try to throw the same bland pass to start offensive throws that they’ve committed with muscle memory, Vanderbilt will throw them for a steal and a layup the other way.
How good can a player be if he can’t shoot? At 22, there’s still some hope that Vanderbilt can stretch his game. But as of now, that’s his glaring flaw and what limits him to a spark plug role player. Defenders drift away from him, which can hurt Wolves’ space. Fortunately, you’ve found a couple of ways to take advantage of it.
Vanderbilt willingly does the dirty work, setting up screens to open up better shooters. When defenders ignore it, they are too far out of play to turn on their screens. That gap also gives him a great track to grab offensive rebounds, where he’s elite.
The only area where Vanderbilt creates a bit of a score for himself is with his cuts. He looks like a Pro Bowl wide receiver running precision pass routes. He is one of the most active cutters and smart screen sliders in the league, finding openings where other players wouldn’t by mastering change of pace and passing angles. Once he gets the ball, he looks for the closest body to shoot.
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Vanderbilt can also spend a bit. He told the “Locked on Nuggets” podcast that he used to study the Lamar Odom tape growing up, and he averaged 29 points, 13 rebounds and nine assists per game in the style of Odom as a highly touted senior in high school. While his assist numbers aren’t anything special even at the NBA level, there are some nuances of that left-handed passing vision in his game.
There’s also a cool factor at Vanderbilt. Wolves announcer Jim Peterson, probably the best black man in the league, spouted one of the best nicknames I’ve heard this year, calling Vanderbilt “the Vandolorean.”
That seems to fit fine. It’s a little weird from afar. Chaos and destruction follow in their wake. But he is loved by those who know him well, like teammates and coaches. He’s Rodman on Disney Plus, intriguing enough to carry a spin-off series, but without the juice to headline a summer blockbuster.
Bottom line: Vanderbilt figures out ways to contribute without scoring the ball. The Wolves starting lineup with him is surprisingly the best in the NBA statistically speaking, and has some of the best flashing numbers on the team. His always bad defense is in the top 10 this year, and he’s a big part of that. He’s far from a star, but he’s a complete contributor who’s fun to watch.
Those are the qualities that make a hidden gem. This is the way.