There are a few things we know for certain about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas. First, he is willing to go big game hunting for premier talent. He made that abundantly clear when he hunted down D’Angelo Russell and, eventually, brought him to Minneapolis. Secondly, he, along with trade and salary cap extraordinaire Sachin Gupta, are not afraid of finding creative ways to twist and adjust the cap-strapped roster he acquired in May of 2019.
Now that Rosas has Russell, Karl-Anthony Towns and, presumably, Malik Beasley in place for the foreseeable future, it’s as certain as taxes that he is going to swing hard for the fences at a piece or two that will accompany and enhance the trio’s skill set. Strapped with two draft picks and an asset or two to trade, Rosas will undoubtedly try to flex his managerial muscles when the offseason eventually rolls around.
A power forward or small forward who is both available and can make a defense better (and contribute offensively) would be the ideal player to target, but they aren’t just growing on trees. Someone like Aaron Gordon — who Zone Coverage’s Dane Moore has written some awesome stuff about — is perhaps the most realistic option, but even he would probably cost a pretty penny and is still owed almost $35 million until the 2022 summer. There is no doubt Rosas and Gupta have the nous to pull off a Gordon deal, but there are more than a few hurdles to get through to get it over the line.
With that in mind, they need a contingency plan. Maybe, just maybe, it’s already sitting right under their noses. Jarred Vanderbilt is the forgotten man from the deal that brought Malik Beasley to the Twin Cities, but the 20-year-old is a truly fascinating case study. The caveat? the $1.6 million he is potentially owed for next season is only guaranteed if he stays on the roster until July 15th.
Even with his contract in mind, Vanderbilt should strongly be considered to become a rotational piece for this Wolves team next season. On both ends, the former Kentucky Wildcat is teeming with the potential to become an impact player. Standing at 6-foot-9 and generously weighing in at 215 lbs, he is primarily a power forward, but his versatile skill set allows him to pinch-hit at both small forward and center.
Vanderbilt had been plying his trade in the G-League for the majority of the season, splitting his 20 games for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Windy City Bulls and the Timberwolves’ affiliate Iowa Wolves. With the G-League season officially canceled, Vanderbilt finishes his sophomore year averaging 14.7 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.1 blocks in just 26.8 minutes per game. Per 36 minutes, that expands out to 19.7 points, 13.5 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.5 blocks. Efficiency-wise, he is shooting 56.8 percent on 2-pointers and 25.8 percent on 3-pointers.
In that small sample, he flashed plenty of things Minnesota would love in a role player, while still showing obvious signs of immaturity as a player. He is a low-usage, living and breathing intangible, one that would fit well around the Wolves’ shiny new core. He is a bizarre mash-up of a modern-day and an old school big man. If he does manage to put it all together, he could land somewhere between Pascal Siakam and Kenneth Faried. So let’s dig a bit deeper how that conclusion came around.
The first thing that jumps off the screen, and constantly gets mentioned by people who’ve watched him at Kentucky and in Denver, is Vanderbilt’s tenacious rebounding ability — which is where the Faried comparison arises.
He is one of those players who seems to have a sixth sense for where the ball is going to go after it clanks off the cylinder. Combine that with an unquenchable thirst for crashing the boards no matter where he is when the shot goes up, and you can see why he has such rave reviews about his rebounding exploits. Throughout the 20 G-League games he featured in, only eight regular rotation players had a higher rebound percentage than Vanderbilt’s 17.7 percent.
Vanderbilt does bring his hard hat and his lunch pail to the glass on both sides of the floor, but it really shows when he is creating second chances on the offensive end. In the two examples below, you can see how keen his nose for the ball is and how he is always seeking out the best route to get free for an offensive rebound.
Another element that cements himself as a great offensive rebounder, and another that mimics Faried and other board monsters, is how quick and bouncy his second-jump is. Even after missing a layup, he springs back up and gets his paws on the ball before anyone else has a chance.
Like a lot of his game, his rebounding will improve as he adds strength and experience at the NBA level, but there are clear signs that he could develop into a high-level board man. If he does manage to squirm into Minnesota’s rotation, he could still help immediately, even with his rawness. The Timberwolves rank 24th in rebound percentage this season and 17th in offensive rebound percentage, one of many areas they struggled in throughout the 64 games before the season was postponed.
Perimeter and Passing
The most likely reason that Vanderbilt was forced to bide his time in the G-League this season was because he, despite having a myriad of translatable skills, still lacks a reliable 3-point shot. We know how important that is to Ryan Saunders’ offensive system and how players who don’t fit that mold get quickly discarded.
The 20-year-old has clearly been working on the long-range jumper, attempting 31 in his 20 games, after jacking up just the single miss at Kentucky. However, he has failed to truly make his mark as a shooter. Of the 31 attempts, he saw just eight tickle the twine. Vanderbilt’s mechanics aren’t the prettiest in the world — he seems to shoot slightly from the left side of his body — and he seems hesitant to even let it fly unless he is wide open.
However, he does have a slashing ability that would be a snug fit in the modern-day NBA. Hence, the Siakam comparison. Of course, it would take quite the leap to get to the level of the Toronto Raptors star, but Vanderbilt displays many of the same ball-handling and driving characteristics at big man size that Siakam does.
He will still need to polish his handle a bit more if he wants to become a serious threat on the perimeter, but the groundwork is clearly there. If Vanderbilt masters this kind of quick crossover and drive move he could become a genuine scoring option at NBA level.
In a broken floor situation, he’s also a force with the ball in his hands. He is legitimately quick for someone of his size and his forenamed handle allows him to maneuver past defenders. Here are a few examples:
Like his slashing and ball-handling ability, the former McDonald’s All-American’s knack for finding the right pass is fairly unique for a player who can fill minutes as a small-ball five. Throughout his time in the G-League this season, he regularly found cutters with the pinpoint accuracy and timing of a true playmaker.
If the time does arise where Vanderbilt is asked to play alongside Timberwolves players who can excel off the ball like Towns, Russell, Beasley and even Josh Okogie or Juancho Hernangomez, his vision will be a major asset.
Ripping down a board, going the length of the floor and finishing with a silky bounce pass to a backdoor cutter like this is something I think we all want to see Vanderbilt produce in the big leagues.
Even without a 3-point shot, plays like that make an offense hum. Take this for another example, he may not be able to make the long-ball consistently, but this awe-inspiring behind the back drop-off creates a wide open triple for his teammate.
If Vanderbilt is able to increase his 3-point accuracy, he is going to make a real splash as a scorer and distributor one day. Perhaps that’s too much to ask but, either way, he is already capable of adding real strings to an offense’s bow.
This is where things could really swing either way for Vanderbilt. He is a twitchy athlete who can spring off the floor and plays taller than his 6-foot-9 frame suggests; an archetype that only becomes even more tantalizing when you factor in his rangy 7-foot-1 wingspan.
With all that in tow, it doesn’t take too much mental gymnastics to envision the former Wildcat becoming a force defensively. Already in his young career, he has flashed the ability to defend the paint and perimeter with mouth-watering success, which is exactly what the Timberwolves need. After the franchise-altering deals made at the trade deadline, the team flat-out stunk on the defensive side of the hardwood — surrendering 116.7 points per 100 possessions and ranking them as the second-worst defense in the league.
The team doesn’t just lack in one area, every link in the defensive chain could use reinforcement. At his best, Vanderbilt’s aforementioned frame and speed could help the team both interior and perimeter defense. Take this masterful piece of roadblocking for an example of the former:
You can see him stalking Salt Lake City’s Mike Scott down the court, hunting him silently like a lioness in the shrubbery, before springing out and massacring the layup attempt. He immediately follows that up by displaying his awesome second-jump ability and swatting the putback away as well.
With Karl-Anthony Towns’ tendency to be caught flat-footed or out of position, someone with the instincts of a true rotational defender like Vanderbilt could really come in handy. It’s also a skill that incumbent power forward and restricted free agent Juancho Hernangomez doesn’t possess.
On the perimeter, Vanderbilt exhibits just as much promise. He is long enough to smother opposing ball-handlers while also having the awareness on when to accurately jump passing lanes — leading the run-outs and fast break opportunities on which he thrives.
While that side of Vanderbilt’s defensive coin is shiny, the other side can be rusted and hard to look at. He can often be caught ball-watching, confused and out of position in half court sets. This is probably born out of his relative inexperience, even compared to other players his age. He suffered two major injuries to his left foot in high school and another in college (plus an ankle sprain, too). That led to just 14 games for Kentucky before declaring for the draft.
Those kinds of setbacks can quickly stunt one’s development, especially in complex NBA-level defensive schemes. Even with great instincts, it usually takes young players — especially bigs — years before they reach their defensive potential. And that’s without missing a chunk of their careers through injuries.
That leads to bungled switches and miscommunication like this:
However, inexperience is no excuse for lazy closeouts and a flat-out lack of effort like this:
There is still plenty to work on and learn if Vanderbilt is to become a true defensive stalwart, but the tools are all there. Whether he sharpens them enough could be what makes or breaks him as an NBA player. It’s questionable whether Minnesota can afford to give him the leash he needs to learn from his on-court mistakes, but is it still a better option than playing a defense-less Hernangomez who is on the hunt for a payday? Probably.
Minnesota needs impact role players and with a cap-strapped bankroll, and Vanderbilt carrying a $1.6 million cap hit with the potential to genuinely contribute on both ends might be the perfect — and frugal — option. If Minnesota strikes out on a big name, look for Vanderbilt to become much more of a talking point.