Nearly lost in all the college basketball noise last week — the federal indictment; the FBI investigation; the arrest of four assistant coaches; Rick Pitino being “effectively fired” at Louisville; the potential implications at several top programs — was a nugget of unfortunate news out of the Kentucky basketball camp.
We won’t get to see Jarred Vanderbilt for a while. The 6-foot-9 forward out of Houston suffered a left foot injury in a skills instruction session last Friday. UK announced the news Saturday morning. After surgery, Vanderbilt is expected to be out three months.
That could mean the promising prospect will be ready for either the start of SEC play Jan. 3 at LSU or shortly thereafter. That’s the good news. This wasn’t a torn ACL or something that should shelve Vanderbilt for the season, thus delaying his collegiate debut until 2018-19.
Still, the injury presents challenges, both for Vanderbilt personally and for head coach John Calipari, that are likely to have a big impact on UK’s season.
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Start with Vanderbilt, who has had more than his fair share of foot injuries before. He was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot in June of 2016, then re-injured the foot his senior season at Victory Prep High School, where he still managed to average 28.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists.
He then sprained his right ankle with just 36.5 seconds left in the Jordan Brand Classic, where he scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds. That injury came after Vanderbilt had scored a game-high 19 points and grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds in the Nike Hoops Summit.
After bypassing surgery before, Vanderbilt decided the latest injury meant it was time to go under the knife.
“I’ve had some setbacks before and I’ve come back from all of them,” he said in the UK news release on Saturday. “After talking with my family, I feel good about the plan they have in place for me. I’m anxious to get this right and return to my team so I can put this behind me for good.”
Ranked No. 12 for the class of 2017 by 247Sports, No. 12 by Scout and No. 14 by Rivals, Vanderbilt’s chronic foot issues posed the biggest question about his NBA future. The hope is surgery eliminates that problem. For good.
Until then, however, Calipari must solider on without one of the top freshmen on a team filled with freshmen. We know Calipari’s UK teams are always filled with freshmen, but this year that’s even more so the case. It’s just that, by all reports, none of his teammates are exactly like Vanderbilt.
It’s not that the UK coach lacks front-court personnel. Fellow freshmen Kevin Knox, whom Vanderbilt played a major role in recruiting, and PJ Washington play the power forward spot. Yet Vanderbilt was lauded for his versatility. He’s more of a point forward at power forward. When asked in August which of his freshmen fit his “positionless” description, Calipari pointed to Vanderbilt.
The Texan’s early absence means that holdovers Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones will receive more of an opportunity to shine. Gabriel has spent the summer bulking up after his thin frame was pushed around last season. A highly touted recruit, Killeya-Jones failed to make an impact and rode the bench from Jan. 21 through the end of the campaign. The hope is he just needed a transition year and makes a sophomore surge.
It also means Calipari faces another challenge upon Vanderbilt’s return. In the past, time was needed for the freshmen to feel comfortable together and for Calipari to figure out the style that suits that team best. No reason to think this year will be different. Having Vanderbilt join the group late could complicate matters.
Or, best-case scenario, it brings a new and different asset to the mix, something the Cats can use to their benefit down the regular-season stretch and into the NCAA Tournament. In a season where we’re not quite sure what to expect, Vanderbilt’s injury adds one more twist to the plot.