As the late, great Mac Miller’s birthday came and went just over a week ago, the Pittsburgh native’s lyrics have been stuck on repeat in my head. In particular, the beginning of the first verse in his 2018 hit ‘2009’ — a simple one-liner: you’ve got to jump in to swim.
Simple, right? But sometimes even the most simplistic saying hits the spot. Nothing good happens without that first leap of faith. And that leap isn’t always so easy. That’s something that we could all do with remembering from time-to-time. If you needed a human reminder, there is one diving on the floor for loose balls and flying for alley-oop slams on our screens every other night. That ball of energy is Jarred Vanderbilt, and he had to wait in a long line before he could dive into the waters of his NBA career.
Vanderbilt was a highly-touted high-schooler — he knew he could swim if he could only get a chance to jump in, but foot injuries hampered his lone season at Kentucky and his rookie season with Denver. By the time he was back from his ailments, he was buried below a mountain of big man depth for the fast-rising Nuggets.
Even when Vanderbilt was traded to the ever-struggling Minnesota Timberwolves at the trade deadline last season, he still couldn’t break through, spending his entire time with Minnesota’s G-League affiliate in Iowa. By this stage, his talent and theoretical fit with the Wolves was more legend than reality, a myth growing by the day as we tried to cure the boredom of a nine-month offseason.
Then, the season kicks off and, as usual, chaos reigned supreme. With Karl-Anthony Towns playing just four games due to a wrist dislocation and contracting COVID-19, the Wolves spiraled. There really hasn’t been too much to get excited about thus far. However, Vanderbilt finding his chance to jump in and snatching it up has certainly been one of them. There are rough edges, to be sure, but Vanderbilt’s ability to negate those weaknesses through breathtaking hustle and physical tools has been one of the chief reasons he has quickly become a fan favorite.
Vanderbilt has been in the league for three years, so it’s easy to forget he has only played in 43 games. As is the case with all inexperienced players, his naivety usually shows up on the defensive end. In the big leagues, even the littlest things get punished swiftly. One wrong move is a bucket forfeited. All it takes here is one overeager step in the post against a veteran like Enes Kanter, and it’s an easy deuce.
Again, in real time this is a minuscule mistake, but it doesn’t take much to get scalped in the NBA. As Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter comes around a John Collins screen and loses a trailing Malik Beasley, Vanderbilt slides into the hole to stop Huerter from bursting into an open lane. However, Vanderbilt over-rotates his hips a fraction, which leaves him rudderless in no man’s land. The result is Collins rumbling to the rim and finishing with Vanderbilt a step behind.
Factoring in games played, Vanderbilt is still virtually a rookie, and rookies routinely find themselves out of position on the defensive end. But, the 21-year-old differs from most NBA beginners in his recovery ability and knack for pulling off a bucket-stopping sequence from out of nowhere. Combine that with never-ending hustle and hand-eye coordination that Jet Li would be proud of, and you have the makings of a star-studded defender — even without the nous that develops through game reps.
Plays like this are why Vanderbilt can survive and thrive in a starting role with the Wolves, despite his youthfulness. During Atlanta’s cross-key action for DeAndre Hunter, Vanderbilt had a classic rookie power-down. He not only loses sight of his man — who is casually jogging into a scoring position — but he seems to completely lose awareness of his surroundings. Most youngsters will chalk the play up and focus on getting it right next time, but not Vanderbilt. He locates Hunter, sneaks back into his airspace, and strips the ball at the lowest (and hardest to reach) point. In return for his effort, Malik Beasley feeds him in transition for an easy stuff.
Vanderbilt’s hands have quickly become one of the league’s deadliest. Many an athlete has entered the league with long arms and an energetic mindset, but having the gift to knock balls loose from seemingly impossible positions is a whole other micro-skill. According to NBA.com, Vanderbilt’s 4.3 deflections per 36 minutes rank 18th among qualified players, and nobody averages more steals (1.5) in less than 20 minutes per game.
Those figures aren’t just a result of a pure Energizer Bunny mentality, Vanderbilt’s ability to read the situation and make the right play extremely encouraging. Again, we know he is unseasoned, and we know that he doesn’t have the bulk to take on the biggest low-post bangers the league has to offer. He knows that, too. When former teammate Nikola Jokic corners him in the post, he plays to his strengths and he negates his weaknesses. Instead of being bulldozed by the 6-foot-11 Serbian giant, Vanderbilt rounds him and sticks his long arm for a pickpocket. A gamble? Sure, but it’s one that you can take when you have the aforementioned hand-eye expertise that Vanderbilt does.
Sometimes it’s not even a mess of his own that Vanderbilt is willing to sweep up. And on many occasions so far, it hasn’t been just fast hands near floor level, but near and above the rim with exciting shot-blocking instincts. Here, Jarrett Culver being frozen by a pair of Luke Kennard hesitation moves puts Vanderbilt in a bind. The former Nugget has to step up and forbid Kennard from strolling into a layup, but he knows Mfiondu Kabengele is camped behind him waiting for the dump-off or put-back.
Somehow, as is the case often with Vando, he manages to not only break even from a no-win situation, but win comfortably. He gets a fingertip on the ball as it’s travelling past him mid-air, which gives him the split second longer to spring back up as soon as he touches earth and meet Kabengele at his apex.
The ability to make up for his shortcomings isn’t just limited to his admittedly preferred side of the floor. Vanderbilt is a non-shooter, and in today’s NBA that’s an archetype that seems to be losing value by the second. Especially without having the overwhelming size or strength that seems to help fellow paint dwellers like Rudy Gobert, Clint Capela and Andre Drummond survive.
Even with that weighing against him, Vanderbilt has, so far, shown that he can function inside an offense like Minnesota’s that has a tendency to launch at will from deep. Obviously, it would be ideal if Vanderbilt could start to stretch the floor with a respectable jumper as his career unfurls, but right now he spaces the court in ways that don’t revolve around jacking up triples himself.
Take this for example — Vanderbilt begins the play behind the arc in the left slot, but everyone on the floor knows he isn’t going to do any damage from there. Still, Zion Williamson gets caught ball-watching for just a millisecond, which allows Vanderbilt to collapse the entire defense with a single, well-timed cut and open up the floor for his shooting buddy Malik Beasley. With Vanderbilt behind Williamson, now Lonzo Ball needs to rotate off Beasley and tag Vando, but by the time that all unfolds, Ricky Rubio has already fired the rock to Beasley, who only needs a sliver of space to make it rain.
Hard-cutting and a willingness to work to get teammates open makes the basketball gods smile, and they often reward players who excel in that area with a bucket or two of their own. This is the exact same scenario, from the Naz Reid screen in the opposite slot to the daydreaming Zion. This time, however, Ball is hesitant to leave his flame-throwing matchup, and Vanderbilt is allowed to sneak behind and get an easy two points for himself. Good defense dictates that you stop layups, so most of the time a defender in Ball’s position will sell out to stop the cutter. A perfect example of how to space the floor without ever thinking about shooting a jump shot.
Another way Vanderbilt nullifies his inability to shoot from deep is his ability to offensive rebound. Yes, that’s right, offensive rebound. That may seem odd, but it’s how he does it (and boy can he do it) that makes it such an integral part of the young big surviving in a shot-happy offense. To keep space in the middle for drivers, Vanderbilt has to be out of the way. There is no point trying to get players going downhill towards the rim if you have someone anchored there with their defender ready to easily rotate off and impact shots at the rim.
So that’s what he does. Vanderbilt starts outside the arc, just like he would if he was a shooting threat. But, as soon as that driver gets past his man and heads toward the cup, Vanderbilt takes off in his slipstream. With speed, hops and a natural nose for rebounds, a streaking Vanderbilt is near impossible to box out. In the first play here, he jets in behind, you guessed it, Zion Williamson. And in the second play, he stays out of the paint after the hand-off action and races in to sky for the tip-in.
There is no substitute for hustle, heart and energy, but Vanderbilt is showing us on a nightly basis that he has more than that. He is a freakish athlete with a nose for the ball that many can only dream of. Most importantly, though, he is brimming with basketball IQ. He is a tireless worker, but he is also a tireless thinker. His ability to not only play through mistakes, but mend them on the fly is the most impressive part of his game, and something that will continue to hold him in good stead and he figures out the league and progresses as a player.