Listed at 6 feet 8 in this year’s McDonald’s All-American Game media guide, Jarred Vanderbilt dribbled the ball down the court during one of the ultra-competitive practices earlier this week and sized up his defender.
Vanderbilt — a University of Kentucky commitment — made a sharp move to his left, his opponent going with him, before delivering an even quicker move — complete with a behind-the-back dribble — back to his right, taking a step back and draining a three-pointer.
The all-star play was no anomaly. Vanderbilt was that good all day.
“He always plays hard,” said Scout.com national analyst Evan Daniels. “I think the biggest thing with him is he hasn’t been healthy for so long. … He made some jump shots today, which is promising, because that’s something we’ve never really seen from him before. He’s always been versatile and athletic and a really good rebounder. I thought he was pretty impressive in practice.”
Vanderbilt — a Texas native and the No. 14 overall recruit in the Scout.com rankings — missed much of last summer’s AAU and camp schedule with a foot injury. He suffered an injured foot again early in the high school season and has struggled to stay on the court in recent months.
When he’s 100 percent, he’s hard to stop, as his fellow McDonald’s All-Americans have seen this week.
Adding an outside shot would be one more weapon in Vanderbilt’s game, and an important one for the Wildcats, who will lose almost all of their three-point production from this season’s team.
Vanderbilt made just four of 21 three-point attempts on the Nike circuit before his injury last summer, and he’s never been known as a great — or even all that good — outside shooter. He says he’s been working on that, and this week’s practices have backed that up.
“I’ve put a lot of work in my jumper, and obviously some of the shots are falling,” Vanderbilt said. “I thought that was the main thing that I needed to add to my game, especially moving on to the next level.
“I’ve been living in the gym. Before school. After school. Even go late nights sometimes. I’ve been sacrificing a lot just to get that right. And it seems like it’s been paying off so far. … It’s just great to see all the hard work pay off.”
A wiry left-hander, Vanderbilt was already accomplished in other areas.
He’s one of the best rebounders in the class. He’s always been a phenomenal passer for his size. And he has the length and athleticism to be a good defender in college.
His passing ability, improved ball handling and that emerging jump shot make Vanderbilt a candidate to play on the perimeter next season for the Wildcats, who likely will need more options out there following the likely departures of underclassmen Isaiah Briscoe, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, and the certain departures of seniors Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder.
If all five are gone, that would leave UK with just three scholarship guards on the 2017-18 roster: freshmen Hamidou Diallo, Quade Green and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Cats are looking around for other possible additions, but few remain who could make an immediate impact.
Vanderbilt is ready to give it a go.
“I’m position-less, in my opinion,” he said. “Wherever Cal needs me, one through five, I’m there. I feel like I can do it all. Whatever position I need to be at to help my team win, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Vanderbilt said he also sees fellow McDonald’s All-American PJ Washington and UK freshman Wenyen Gabriel, who is expected to return next season, as “position-less” players that can play on the perimeter or go inside.
Vanderbilt, who teamed up with Green and fellow UK signee Nick Richards, an athletic, 6-11 center, in 3-on-3 drills during Tuesday’s practice, also expects the Cats to play fast next season.
“It’s kind of scary, if you ask me,” he said. “One through five, we can all grab the rebound and we’re gone. We’re going to be a transition team. Me and PJ have the ability to get the rebound and start the break. Quade’s running. Nick’s running. Man, we got so many options in transition, it’s crazy.”