Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt averaged 28.5 points during his high school senior season. But scoring, even in a spectacular fashion, does not bring him unparalleled satisfaction.
“To me, a nice pass is equivalent to me dunking it,” he said. “Like I get just as hyped seeing my teammate score.”
Once he returns from a preseason foot injury and begins playing in January, Vanderbilt might epitomize “positionless player.”
UK Coach John Calipari thinks the trendy term for versatility fits Vanderbilt. When asked which player on this year’s team best fits the “positionless” mold, he said, “Probably Jarred. Like, what the hell is he? He’s 6-9, and everybody loves him. You talk to anybody who evaluates us. They’re all, like, wow.”
Kentucky labels Vanderbilt a forward. But “point forward” might be more accurate. At this early stage, it seems he might be asked to initiate the offense at times. Rather than the “stretch four,” a forward who make three-pointers (think Derek Willis), he could catch the ball, turn and be prepared to pass, dribble or shoot.
Calipari has said UK has several “play-making ‘fours’” this season. That seems especially true for Vanderbilt. Fellow freshman PJ Washington also fits this mold.
Vanderbilt has experience as a pass-first player.
“When I was young, I played point guard,” he said. This was because he played at ages 7 or 8 against players several years older.
“That resulted in me being one of the smallest (players) on the court,” he said. “So (the coach) kind of threw me in as a point guard. I played point guard for a while, and it kind of stuck with me.”
By middle school, Vanderbilt was on the way to growing to his present 6-foot-9. He retained the point guard skills and mentality.
“The handle and everything,” he said. “The passing and stuff, it carried on with me.”
Passing is better at 6-9 than at the usual point guard height.
“Because I can see the whole court,” Vanderbilt said. “I can see over everybody. I can develop stuff in my mind, where people are going to be at. … Just comprehend and thinking everything through.
“It’s just natural instincts.”
As a 6-9 playmaker, basketball is “a lot easier,” he added. “Just kind of slowing the game down and getting the feel for it.”
By definition, a “positionless player” is not confined to a specific on-court role. He or she must weigh multiple options. A nimble mind and ability to multitask seems necessary.
Coincidentally, Vanderbilt can juggle.
“I went to the circus or something and saw them juggling,” he said of this skill. “I came home the next day or so, and I just got some oranges.”
In time, Vanderbilt mastered juggling. “I’m a little rusty …,” he said. “It’s fun. It’s a nice little craft. It helps with hand coordination and stuff.”
Vanderbilt and UK’s other playmaking forwards represent a departure for Calipari. His UK teams have usually had a “stretch four” whose perimeter shooting helped open up driving lanes and space for action around the basket.
With playmaking forwards, “There are things we’re going to have to teach that I haven’t done before here,” Calipari said.
Vanderbilt’s current role models for playmaking are James Harden and LeBron James. (Incidentally, Vanderbilt said the talk of him being related to James is not true.)
“Those are, like, the two big guys I watch film of and try to model my game after,” he said. “In the past, I always watched a lot of Lamar Odom and Penny Hardaway. Those are my two main guys that I just try to implement into my game.”
One of Vanderbilt’s sisters, Jene, played for Texas-San Antonio.
“I think she was more of a shooter, though,” he said. “I’m more of a versatile, do everything (player).”