There isn’t much room for debate regarding the most valuable member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, either for this upcoming season or the near future. The answer is Karl-Anthony Towns, the team’s best and most tenured player, though one could also argue that Anthony Edwards also possesses the skills that fit the bill. The franchise cornerstone and the young up-and-comer are the only two options.
However, where there is room for debate is which member of the Wolves roster provides the most under-the-radar value; that is to say, which player contributes most to winning, even if the superficial data doesn’t necessarily point in their direction.
Numerous athletes could lay stake to the claim of being “most sneakily important,” though two of the most widely cited are Patrick Beverley and Jaden McDaniels.
New backup point guard Beverley — a bulldog defender and career 38% shooter from deep who grew up idolizing Kevin Garnett — has already endeared himself to fans by simply being himself. His veteran leadership and take-no-shit attitude will act as jet fuel for a team that often lacks a flame.
McDaniels emerged during the second half of the 2020-21 campaign and redirected the narrative surrounding his potential from intriguing talent to potential franchise staple. He’s a long, athletic defender who can effectively split time between the three and four while providing some juice offensively.
However, glancing at lineup data from last season suggests another name: Jarred Vanderbilt.
Lineup data are valuable as they provide an in-depth look at how certain players perform next to others on the team. For this exercise, three-man combinations were analyzed using net rating (NRTG) as a barometer for success. The higher the NRTG, the more successful the group was. Any group who appeared in fewer than 100 minutes together throughout the season were excluded.
In total, the Wolves had 31 three-man rotations that met the criteria and achieved an NRTG greater than 0 (i.e., neutral). Vanderbilt and Towns tied for the lead in appearances among these rotations with 14 apiece.
Additionally, the Wolves had 82 lineups that met the criteria and “achieved” an NRTG less than zero. Jordan McLaughlin led the way this time by appearing in only nine groups, but Vanderbilt came in second with 12 appearances; Vanderbilt was the only Wolves player who appeared in more positive than negative three-man groups.
The Wolves had 82 three-man lineups that played at least 100 minutes and produced a NRTG <0. Among players still on the roster, the number of lineups they appeared in:— Lucas Seehafer (@seehafer_) October 7, 2021
“He’s a possessions guy. He gets steals. He gets offensive rebounds. These are things that we noted and why it was such a priority to get him back,” Wolves head coach Chris Finch said of Vanderbilt during Thursday afternoon’s media availability when asked by Canis Hoopus. “[I] felt a little nervous throughout the summer that some analytically driven teams would really try to come after him. Fortunately for us, we were able to get him back. He’s a big part of what we do.”
Jarred Vanderbilt — who re-signed at 3-years, $13.8 million this past offseason — is not the type of player to make an All-Star team. In fact, his limitations — no outside game, poor free-throw shooter, etc. — make it unlikely that he’s destined to be the starting power forward on a playoff-contending team.
However, what he lacks in overall skills, he makes up for in spades in intangibles that are important for winning basketball. He grabs rebounds on both ends of the glass at high rates — he ranked in the top 10% in offensive rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage last season — and is excellent in transition, ranking in the 83rd percentile (1.30 PPP). He also led the team in steals per 100 possessions with 2.6 and was third in blocks per 100 possessions with 1.9.
To put it bluntly, he gives a crap on both ends of the court and not only did that drive show up in last season’s stats, but it will also help propel the Wolves forward during the 2021-22 season. Jarred Vanderbilt is not the Wolves’ best player, but he may be one of the most sneakily valuable and important team members.