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Jarred Vanderbilt Should be the Timberwolves Fifth Starter

The Kentucky Wildcat (#PKP) has earned a bigger role

Minnesota Timberwolves v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

The biggest personnel-based question for the Minnesota Timberwolves heading into the 2021-22 season was largely about who would be the fifth starter, alongside D’Angelo Russell, Anthony Edwards, Jaden McDaniels, and Karl-Anthony Towns. We knew those four players were pretty much locked in, but the final spot in the starting lineup was much more of a question mark, and looked like it would be the first big puzzle for Chris Finch to figure out.

While Josh Okogie got the first crack at it and performed fine, and players such as Malik Beasley, Taurean Prince, or even Patrick Beverley have a decent case to make, Jarred Vanderbilt has earned that spot. Maybe Minnesota will tinker with the starting lineup depending on the matchup, but I’m not sure what the purpose of that is anymore.

The number one performance-based worry about this team heading into the season was their rebounding. Outside of KAT, the Wolves are pretty small, and feature few players who were plus rebounders for their position. For this reason, many assumed that Vando would be a likely choice to start, given that for his career he has averaged 11.6 rebounds per-36 minutes. Rebounding was Vanderbilt’s calling card coming out of college, posting an elite 18.5 boards per-40.

To compare a bit more apples-to-apples, Vando’s REB% at Kentucky was 25.7%, and thus far in the NBA it has been 17.3%. Both numbers are very, very strong. Per, his 16.2% REB% this season is better than regular centers like Nikola Vucevic, Mason Plumlee, Wendell Carter, Jakob Poetl, and Mitchell Robinson, and is in the ballpark of other known rebounding machines such as Giannis and Tristan Thompson. Simply put, he is an elite rebounder.

But we’ve known Vanderbilt was a good rebounder for some time, which made it strange that he played just 22 combined minutes in two games against the New Orleans Pelicans and Jonas Valancuinas, who ate the Wolves alive on the glass.

Vanderbilt got his shot on Wednesday night at Fiserv Forum, tasked with the difficult assignment of basically matching playing time with two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis still got his, as he always will, but the difference on the backboards was noticeable. Minnesota was outrebounded in the two-game mini-series with New Orleans 60-41 and 40-34. It was an obvious problem, and the response from the whole team, led by Vanderbilt (13 rebounds) and Jaden McDaniels (11 rebounds), produced a win on the backboard Wednesday night, 49-43.

To be frank, Vanderbilt wins on the backboards by busting his ass and attacking the ball at its peak — like an elite wide receiver attacking a jump ball in the end-zone. He’s 6’9”, 215 lbs. He’s not tiny, but is hardly a behemoth inside. He has a knack for reading angles and playing the ball correctly off the rim, but more than anything, he has proven that he simply wants that rebound more than most players on the floor. Some guys wait for rebounds to come to them, but Vanderbilt is always the aggressor on the glass. These are not your empty calorie rebounds from #0 in purple and gold.

This offensive rebound in particular is my favorite, winning Minnesota another possession after a truly horrid three-point attempt.

Now, if this all seems so obvious, why didn’t Vanderbilt start right away?

Well, the answer is two-fold.

For one, Minnesota tested out Vanderbilt as the fifth starter during the preseason against Denver, and the unit looked absolutely atrocious. The offense looked broken (more on that later), and it looked like a unit that was better on paper than it was in reality. The starters only played ~24 minutes in that game, and all of them ranged from -12 to -17, clearly showing that the unit struggled badly.

While preseason basketball is generally not super predictive, that stint surely played a role in Vanderbilt being relegated to the bench. It was so bad, in fact, that I distinctly remember texting a few friends “we’re never seeing that lineup again.”

The other reason is that Vanderbilt is offensively challenged, maybe more so than any other player on the roster. He’s shown time and time again that he struggles to catch the ball (this might be an undersell) as the roll-man or in the dunker’s spot. He flashes some passing/playmaking potential occasionally, but in general, he’s a pretty obvious negative on offense as someone who struggles to hang onto the ball down low and is a zero as a shooter.

I sort of understand the first idea. That lineup truly looked horrible, like they’d never played basketball before.

Now, though, I struggle to see how you can start anyone other than Jarred Vanderbilt at power forward.

For one, if being a negative on offense is going to be what we ding him for, then we have to hold Josh Okogie to the same standard. Okogie is a bit more adept as a finisher, but I don’t think he really spaces the floor for you any more than Vanderbilt does. Sure, JO is more likely to take an uncontested three-pointer, but there’s a reason most of his looks from deep are uncontested. That’s a win for the defense.

Of course, JO isn’t on the floor to help the offense any more than Vando is anyways. He provides his value by playing stellar on-ball defense. It’s a fair point, but Vanderbilt is a stout defender in his own right, and actually might be more reliable in rotation anyways. Is the slight drop-off in point-of-attack defense, in a lineup that already features McDaniels, worth what the group loses defensively? I think not.

Lastly, the ripple effect of having Vanderbilt in the lineup makes life much, much easier for Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota puts a lot on Towns’ plate as-is, so making life a little easier for KAT is always a plus. Not only does the presence of Vanderbilt allow KAT to catch an occasional breather defensively (with Vanderbilt on Giannis last night, KAT spent much of the evening on Pat Connaughton), but it also pushes Karl to the perimeter on offense.

I know it may seem backwards to suggest that Towns’ is best used offensively on the perimeter, but given his frame, historic shooting ability, and improved handle, the best use of his talents come by giving him the ball on the perimeter and letting him face-up his opponent. For as good as KAT can be in the post, he is incredibly prone to offensive fouls while fighting for position, and Minnesota clearly does not know how to space and move off of those post-ups yet.

All of this is to say that not only did Jarred Vanderbilt EARN the starting power forward spot on Wednesday night, he should be afforded a bit of leeway there as well. He’s still an imperfect player who will hamper the offense a bit, but he isn’t so much worse than Okogie on that end that it’s worth making a bad situation even worse on the backboards. The Wolves have played good defense this year, they just need to close out possessions with a rebound the way they did against Milwaukee. JO still has utility on this team, for sure, he just isn’t as good of an option to start or play starter’s minutes as Vando.

While it was just one game, we do have a larger sample that suggests that Vanderbilt fits really well with the other starters.

Vando may not be a 35 minutes per game guy, but he damn sure deserves the fifth spot in the starting lineup.