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2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves Season Review: Jarred Vanderbilt

Let’s review a breakout campaign for Vando, and ponder where he goes from here

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Minnesota Timberwolves Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, Jarred Vanderbilt had only played in 92 games across three seasons between Denver and Minneapolis, but he had shown enough on the fringes the year prior that there was much intrigue about what exactly he could be. It’s hard to say there was much more than just “intrigue” though, as even last year he averaged just 5.4 points. What did catch the eye of many was that Vando was able snag 5.8 board a game in just under 18 minutes a night.

In particular, that was what made him someone to watch this season. His per-minute rebounding numbers were outstanding, and getting a player who was focused on doing all of the little things into the lineup with the “Big 3” made a lot of sense.

Bright Spots on the Glass and Defense

To put it lightly, Vando capitalized on his opportunity. He grabbed a spot in the starting lineup early, and never gave it up. Vando was a force on the glass, averaging 8.4 rebounds per game in roughly 25 minutes (11.9 rebounds per-36 minutes). This wasn’t especially surprising as his career figure sits at 11.8 rebounds per-36 minutes, but you never know how low-minute player’s game will translate once given a bigger role. For a high-energy player like Vanderbilt to show that he could not only hold up physically in a bigger role, but could thrive given that opportunity was awesome to see, and gives the team much more flexibility in the front court moving forward.

So, we kind of knew Vando was an elite rebounder, but what really took off this season was his defensive prowess. Vanderbilt is a legitimate stopper on the wing who can switch 1-4, as well as against smaller 5s. He defended players like LeBron James just as well as he defended Stephen Curry. There are few guys in the league who can capably do that, and his ability to do so will earn him consideration for an All-Defensive team this year, even if he’s unlikely to end up on one of the two teams.

His versatility on the defensive end is apparent not only in the variety on players he defends on the ball, but also in the types of roles he can play. Vanderbilt, more than anyone other than maybe Jaden McDaniels, is why the Wolves “high-wall” defensive scheme worked. He is a tenacious help defender who is flying around to rotate. He doesn’t half-ass any rotation, and is willing to either go straight up to contest at the rim or give up his body to take a charge. He is as selfless as they come, which is why he’s your favorite player’s favorite player.

There’s much room for improvement offensively (much more on that later), but one place he did start to make himself a weapon is as the roll-man in PnR settings, almost exclusively with D’Angelo Russell. Vando is a capable passer on the short-roll, but excels mostly as a good two-handed dunker. One of the few areas he can make teams pay on offense is out of this action, and on some occasions, it can manifest a big, big night for Vando.

Areas for Improvement

With all that said, there’s still a reason Vanderbilt is usually limited to 25 minutes a game. He just makes things hard in the half-court offensively due to his shortcomings both as a finisher and shooter. He doesn’t have very good hands, which also complicates matters because teams are not worried about his presence in the dunker spot either.

For Vando to become more than a role player who is useful for more than half the game, he needs to add something to his offensive game other than a two-handed dunk. I’d actually like to see Vanderbilt try to dunk more often, but that’s easier for me to say from the couch than it is for a player to actually do so in games.

Either way, his presence is what allowed teams to play the “Clippers” defense against Karl-Anthony Towns, where a big wing will guard KAT with the opposing center helping off of Vando in the dunker spot. His inability to be a threat from that spot just makes life so unnecessarily difficult, because teams can leave him alone, double KAT, and still have their help-defender on the weak-side able to “take two” and close-out to a shooter on a skip pass.

He makes life easier on the stars of this team on defense, but he gives much of it back by making their lives much more difficult on offense. When he’s not piling up offensive rebounds, he’s basically a total zero on the more glamorous end of the floor

I think there’s a strong sense that Minnesota will look to upgrade their starting power forward spot this offseason, which makes sense given the restrictions he imposes on the offense.

Summer School Assignment

Just because Vando is an offensive liability now doesn’t mean he’ll always be, though. He’s still just 23 years old with only 166 career games under his belt. There are a few players that he can try to mold his offensive game around to make himself a threat on that end.

First, I could see Vanderbilt in the mold of Bruce Brown. It’ll require a lot of work on his touch around the rim, but leaning more into Vanderbilt as a screener/roll-man is a place he can actually be effective if he is able to improve his finishing a bit. Whether it be just becoming more comfortable around the rim, or adding a floater in the way Brown has, Vanderbilt could add value by building out that part of his game.

The other player Vando should watch ALL of the tape of this offseason is Draymond Green. There are two really, really good players that are treated as total non-shooters in the NBA, that operate totally differently. To me, the Wolves can either use Vando as the playoffs version of Ben Simmons (sitting in the dunker spot and not doing anything) or Draymond Green.

Not every player can be as special as Draymond, but Vanderbilt has the motor to mimic parts of what makes Dray a player that Steph and Klay Thompson love to play with. There are two signature actions that, in my mind, define who the Warriors have been for the past decade, and both involve using the fact that defense don’t really guard Green against them.

First, the patented Steph-Draymond PnR is a play that the Wolves can hope to recreate a poor man’s version of with either D’Angelo Russell or Anthony Edwards. Assuming that teams will defend the ball-handler aggressively in that situation, making the easy pass to Vanderbilt and allowing him to make a play in a 4-on-3 situation is enticing, especially if he’s able to hit a cutting Jaden McDaniels along the baseline for a dunk.

That might not always be there though, so where I really think the Wolves can make more use of Vanderbilt is as a screener away from the play. I envision them trying to mimic the split-action that makes the Warriors so difficult to guard.

Having Vanderbilt make the post-entry pass to Towns, and then screening Russell, Edwards, or Malik Beasley will almost always generate an open look since Vando’s defender won’t be near him to hedge the screen.

Vando is not Draymond, but he can take pieces of his game to become a more impactful offensive player even without becoming a shooting threat.

Where does Vando go from here?

In all likelihood, Vando is going to move to the bench next year as the Wolves look to upgrade the roster. I don’t think that’s so much an indictment on V8 as much as it just is about the Wolves place in the Western Conference. Vanderbilt was a great fit in a starting lineup this season that brought the Wolves back into relevance and into the playoffs, but the goals should be bigger now.

It’s not a perfect comparison by any means, but I’d like to see Vando take on the role Josh Okogie had during some of his first few seasons in Minnesota. There’s a lot of value for Vando to add as a defensive ace and energizer bunny off of the bench, while having the ability to make a spot-start if needed. I think he still would figure to get 20-25mpg, he just wouldn’t start. Vanderbilt also seems to have a similar level of respect and adoration in the locker room as Okogie, which makes the comparison stick even more.

In concert with a move to the bench, I’d also like to see if the Wolves could extract some value out of using Vanderbilt as the backup center. His offensive skills are most conducive to playing the 5 anyways, and he’s big enough and strong enough to defend many 5s anyways. Once again, his defensive versatility is an asset that makes it easier to play him in a few different situations.

Ultimately, the Wolves got a steal when they signed Vanderbilt to a 3 year, $13,122,000 contract last offseason. He’s one of the best value players in the league already, with so much room to grow if he’s able to add a few tricks into his offensive toolbox.

Aside from Anthony Edwards’ ascension and the D’Angelo Russell question mark, I believe that the next biggest question/variable for the Timberwolves ability to reach their ultimate ceiling is finding enough offensive skill from Vanderbilt and McDaniels to play them together next to KAT and Ant. I don’t know if Vando will ultimately reach his full upside, but I do know that even just as is, he’s the type of player that every winning team in this league has, with room to become a truly special complement to Minnesota’s stars.