When the Minnesota Timberwolves acquired Jarred Vanderbilt a few years ago, he was widely viewed as a “throw in” or “salary filler.” However, the former McDonald’s All-American entered this season as almost an unknown entity with only 92 career games played, and he doesn’t turn 23 until April.
Timberwolves’ fans were irrationally excited about Vanderbilt’s potential and what he showed in 64 games in the 2020-21 season. However, the rest of the league was obviously skeptical as the Timberwolves were able to resign Vanderbilt for a three-year deal worth a total of $13,122,000, a value that is far below his current production.
Entering the season, the Timberwolves were widely chastised for not having a clear starting five due to a lack of a power forward. Jaden McDaniels was viewed as a possibility, but the organization frequently expressed their desire to play him at small forward. Taurean Prince was brought over in the Ricky Rubio trade, but like McDaniels, Prince lacked the size to make him a long-term viable option. Essentially through the process of elimination, the Timberwolves landed on Vanderbilt, who was widely thought of as a bench energy guy.
On the surface, “energy guy” feels like an insult because it carries negative connotations suggesting a lack of skill. However, all great teams have a dominant energy guy, so the thought of Vanderbilt filling that role was enticing, even if it didn’t necessarily live up to the standards of a starting power forward. Vanderbilt didn’t waste any time making his impact felt and showing on a nightly basis why he is so much more than an energy option off the bench.
For years, the Timberwolves lacked a sense of energy, athleticism, and reckless abandon that produced positive results. Vanderbilt works so hard on a nightly basis that it becomes exhausting watching him. He chases rebounds like a golden retriever chasing a tennis ball off the end of a dock. Throughout possessions, he has found a way to morph his body to be agile enough to switch on opposing point guards while also being big enough to battle in the post. He’s resurrected the idea that players can be positive offensive contributors even if they aren’t prolific shooters. Through sheer force of will, chaotic brilliance, and a tenacity possessed by few humans, Jarred Vanderbilt has proven that not only is he a legitimate starting NBA forward, but he is an All-NBA Defensive quality player and deserves attention as the league’s Most Improved Player.
As the season started, the Timberwolves’ new defensive scheme was widely covered and applauded, for a good reason. Instead of exclusively playing drop coverage, the Timberwolves kept Karl-Anthony Towns at the level of the screen to disrupt the ball handler. This part of the defense got all the attention because that’s where the ball is, and that’s where people’s eyes go. However, the real change is everything that happened away from the ball. Instead of sticking to their man, the rest of the defense is now responsible for rotating, communicating, and scrambling. In essence, it is a scheme that requires immense amounts of athleticism, energy, communication, and desire. Many players deserve credit for this new scheme working, but this defense would be impossible to execute without Vanderbilt.
Praising energy and effort is great and is something we typically do with newcomers to the league. More often than not, though, that energy rarely produces anything. It is energy for the sake of energy, and this was the case with Vanderbilt when he first joined the Timberwolves. Now, Vanderbilt has harnessed and redirected that chaotic energy to constantly produce positive possessions.
Vanderbilt’s length, energy, and instincts shine the brightest in two important areas for the Timberwolves: forcing turnovers and defensive rebounding. Per Cleaning the Glass, Vanderbilt’s steal percentage of 2.6 ranks in the 98th percentile, and his defensive rebounding rate of 20.8 ranks in the 75th percentile. Additionally, Vanderbilt ranks fifth in the league in deflections and eighth in defensive loose balls recovered, per NBA Stats. Pretty much any defensive metric you prefer, Vanderbilt shows in a positive light. To truly understand his impact, though, you have to see his versatility and chaos in action.
The most fascinating aspect of Vanderbilt’s defense is the high intensity and effectiveness in which he defends every position. Despite playing the power forward role, Vanderbilt is the most switchable defender on the Timberwolves. He switches nearly every pick-and-roll, denies post-ups, and picks up opposing point guards full court.
A few games ago against the Portland Trail Blazers, Anfernee Simons had a tremendous first half, so the Timberwolves simply told Vanderbilt at halftime to go ruin his day. Here, Vanderbilt picks up Simons from the inbound pass after a make. As Simons approaches half-court, Vanderbilt goes into attack mode, gets low in his stance, and frenetically pursues the ball. It looks unorganized and chaotic, but Vanderbilt knows he’s quick enough to stay with Simons, has help from his teammates off-ball, and has the length to recover. D’Angelo Russell makes a lovely cameo appearance to dissuade Simons from driving, allowing Vanderbilt to ramp up the pressure even more. Hating his current situation, Simons desperately tries to whip a one-handed pass to find some salvation, which is precisely when Vanderbilt uses his Go-Go Gadget arms to poke the ball loose. Vanderbilt proceeds to chase down the loose ball, reward Russell for his efforts with an open three, and force the Trail Blazers to call a timeout.
Directly out of that timeout, Vanderbilt decides that picking up Simons full court after the inbounds pass isn’t enough as he denies him the pass. Even as CJ McCollum brings the ball up, Vanderbilt doesn’t give Simons an inch to breathe. Simons creates some space, and Vanderbilt immediately resumes his rightful place: attached to Simons’s hip. As Simons tries to create something, anything, Vanderbilt shows that his defense is more than just high energy. He stays low in his stance and moves his feet with perfection to ensure Simons can’t turn the corner. Russell again makes a well-timed cameo to jar the ball loose, prompting Vanderbilt to go in for the kill. Simons makes an errant pass that Vanderbilt yet again gathers and propels a transition score.
Vanderbilt’s on-ball defensive absurdity isn’t solely reserved for young guards not known by most casual fans. He’s more than happy to spread the frustration to any and all opponents, even the most famous and deadly like Steph Curry.
Sure, Curry still got his points in that game and got the better of Vanderbilt at times because he’s Steph freaking Curry. He does that to anyone who has ever stepped foot on the floor with him. However, what Vanderbilt did was provide a sense of pressure, energy, and length that isn’t representative of a typical point of attack defender. That right there is the true beauty of Vanderbilt’s defense. Vanderbilt’s measurables aren’t unique. Players that look like him are littered throughout the league. What sets Vanderbilt apart at this position is this unique ability and desire to be a menacing point of attack defender that the league is not used to.
Vanderbilt’s defensive impact is also greatly felt when he is away from the ball. As the Memphis Grizzlies run a Chicago action for Desmond Bane, Vanderbilt immediately recognizes it and sags off his man, who set the initial pin-down screen. This positioning allows Vanderbilt to feint at tagging the roller more effectively and prompting the kick-back pass to his initial assignment. Vanderbilt then runs his man off the three-point line because he expects help to rotate behind him. Right on cue, Patrick Beverley slides over from the weak side, slowing down the drive. This rotation allows Vanderbilt to recover and swat the shot away.
What sets Vanderbilt apart from nearly every other defender in the league is his ability to combine his on-ball chaos with perceptive off-ball defense in the same possession. Plenty of players are great at either on or off-ball defense, and some are exclusively elite team defenders. Even some exhibit aptitude at both throughout a game, but it is a rarer breed who can consistently combine them within the same possession.
Here, Vanderbilt found someone his size to bully in Brandon Ingram. Vanderbilt’s off-ball pressure forces Ingram all the way out to the logo to receive the pass. From there, Vanderbilt easily avoids one of the worst screens ever attempted by Jaxson Hayes and sticks on Ingram. Please take note of Vanderbilt’s footwork because it is perfect: broad base, low stance, never crosses his feet. On the fifth attempt at setting the screen, Ingram finally dribbles off it, but Vanderbilt easily avoids it and pursues Ingram to the corner. Ingram kills his dribble on the baseline because of the help from Naz Reid, and Vanderbilt reads Ingram’s eyes and sags off to obscure the pass to Hayes. By this point, the shot clock is under four seconds, and Ingram making a skip pass. As he does so, Vanderbilt surveys the floor and remains at the rim, allowing him to contest the last-second drive and ensure the Pelicans can’t get a shot off in time.
The Timberwolves’ defense has fallen off some from their suffocating start to the season, but they still rank as the 13th best defense, a mark no one expected entering the season. Vanderbilt isn’t the sole reason for their defensive success, but none of it is possible without him.
Vanderbilt frequently gets the Rodman label thrown at him, which everyone immediately scoffs at. I understand why they do, but is it really that absurd? It doesn’t need to be a one-for-one comparison. Just think of their roles, their intensity, their versatility. Is it really that absurd to think of Vanderbilt as the modern-day Dennis Rodman? No one in the league plays with the same productive energy as Vanderbilt does. He can defend every position on the floor across every inch of the floor. He generates extra possessions through his steals and deflections while also killing defensive possessions with his carefree rebounding. If Vanderbilt doesn’t make an All-NBA Defensive team, I’ll understand why, but it certainly won’t be because of merit.
In an age of three-point proliferation, playing a non-seven-footer who can’t shoot threes sounds like an impossibility. Those players simply don’t exist anymore, with the occasional exception. Even those exceptions, though, only find themselves getting spot minutes. Vanderbilt has done the unimaginable; he’s shown that there are still ways to be a positive offensive contributor without shooting.
Vanderbilt is undoubtedly helped by his situation and playing alongside the best shooting big man ever (that’s right, Mavericks fans, I said it), but he deserves an immense amount of credit for accepting his role. When Vanderbilt is on the floor, the Timberwolves offensive rating is eight points higher than when he is off the floor (93rd percentile).
What Vanderbilt does at such an extraordinary level on offense almost mirrors what he does on defense. Through high-energy relocations and pursuit of the ball, Vanderbilt consistently creates additional possessions for the Timberwolves either by corralling offensive rebounds or forcing turnovers by immediately defending opposing players once they secure the rebound. So far this season, Vanderbilt has an offensive rebounding rate of 11.9 percent (81st percentile), and the Timberwolves as a team have an offensive rebounding rate that is 7.3 percent higher with Vanderbilt on the floor than off (95th percentile).
As you can see, Vanderbilt expertly pursues rebounds by altering his path, reading the angles correctly, and not being afraid of contact. What makes Vanderbilt’s offensive rebounding even more valuable is his quick decision-making after securing the rebound. Vanderbilt currently has an assist to usage ratio of 0.7 (71st percentile), and it certainly isn’t because he is a playmaker. Instead, Vanderbilt generates assists by doing the dirty work and immediately finding a teammate spotting up in the corner or cutting to the rim.
Additionally, Vanderbilt’s offensive rebounding creates easy scoring opportunities for himself. Vanderbilt takes 77 percent of his shots at the rim (85th percentile), which is why his eFG% of 58.6 ranks in the 71st percentile.
Another way Vanderbilt capitalizes on easy scoring opportunities is with his off-ball movement. Like his offensive rebounding movement, Vanderbilt is active, timely, and puts himself in proper position while others are ball-watching.
The Timberwolves frequently play a five-out system that generates many cutting opportunities. Most non-shooters in the league are told to sit in the corner or exclusively act as a screener. This approach has desensitized most defenders to focus more on the ball and forget about their man because they are non-threat. Taking your eyes off Vanderbilt, though, almost ensures that you’ll end up on the film session the next day, and not for a good reason.
Vanderbilt’s approach to offense is to constantly attack the rim regardless of where he is on the floor. By doing so, he puts himself in a prime position to rebound or receive a pass for an easy score. McDaniels makes a beautiful cut here, and Russell feeds him with an excellent pass. McDaniels could have scored here, but it would have been a little awkward since the pass took him under the rim. While the rest of the floor is standing and watching, Vanderbilt follows the ball and cuts from the top of the arc. McDaniels makes the simple play and feeds Vanderbilt for the easy dunk.
Again, this time in the dunker spot, Vanderbilt is set up off-ball, while Towns and Russell run a dribble-handoff. The vast majority of the defense’s attention rightfully goes to the DHO, and James Harden is forced to step up once the initial defense loses containment. Vanderbilt eagerly cuts to the rim from the dunker spot for the relatively uncontested reverse layup.
Vanderbilt gets forgotten about even in set plays, allowing him to cut with ease. Here, Vanderbilt sets a cross screen for Towns. The defense rightfully panics as they both try to close out on Towns, leaving Vanderbilt an open lane to cut into. After slipping the screen, Vanderbilt immediately turns his head, and Towns promptly fires a rocket to him. Vanderbilt ensnares the pass, spins against the rotating defender, and finishes with the dunk.
Vanderbilt constantly feasts off the gravity the rest of his team generates. Since he is a non-shooter, defenses frequently forget about him, allowing him to thrive on unobstructed cuts and offensive rebounds. As an offensive player, Vanderbilt knows precisely who he is and doesn’t try to do more than that. By providing constant energy, immaculate off-ball movement, and quick decision-making, Vanderbilt generates easy scoring opportunities for the entire team.
Simply put, the former Kentucky Wildcat is a rare mix of outdated offense with modern defense. Given his offensive skillset, Vanderbilt shouldn’t be one of the most impactful power forwards in the league. However, his willingness and eagerness to do the dirty work have made him indispensable. No one in the league pursues offensive rebounds, cuts, moves, and passes like Vanderbilt does. As a defender, few possess the same energy and versatility as Vanderbilt. His energy, length, and ceaseless pursuit are nightmare fuel for any opponent.
Jarred Vanderbilt isn’t a household name, but he should be. His all-around improvement should put him in the conversation for Most Improved Player. When it comes to the All-NBA Defensive teams, Vanderbilt deserves much more than simply in the conversation. There are only a handful of players throughout the league who have as much defensive responsibility as Vanderbilt has on a nightly basis. Not only does he defend every position on the floor, but he does it at an extremely high level. Players of Vanderbilt’s ilk are constantly fazed out of the league because they fail to harness and redirect their energetic chaos. Vanderbilt is the exception. He has transformed the uncontrollable into a chaotic brilliance. He has resurrected a role that modern basketball has desperately tried to eradicate. He has epitomized the ideal modern defender and deserves to be recognized for it.