A day after confirming that Jarred Vanderbilt is back on the practice floor with the Wildcats — and looking good, at that — UK Coach John Calipari said Tuesday night that his five-star freshman was not yet “mentally ready” to make his college debut.
But, it sounds like he’s getting close.
Vanderbilt hit the Rupp Arena court about two hours before UK’s 74-73 victory over Texas A&M, putting up shots, going through individual endurance drills and moving well on the floor in a white tanktop and a pair of Kentucky game shorts.
When he re-emerged from the Rupp locker room a few minutes before the game, he was back in regular clothes. He took his seat on the UK bench and cheered on his teammates. He could be out there with them in the near future.
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Calipari said on his call-in show Monday night that Vanderbilt looked “really good” in practice earlier that day, and the Herald-Leader was told Tuesday evening that he’s been participating in UK’s practices — not just going through individual workouts — for a few days.
“Even today, I loved him in the shootaround,” Calipari said after Tuesday’s game. “He’s just not mentally ready to go on the court. I basically told him, ‘Listen, when you go in, you’re going to play seven or eight minutes a half, limited minutes for a while. I’m going to put you out there, let you run around, let you feel good about yourself and you’re out.’ But he’s going to have to make that decision. It’s more mental. I mean, he can play. He couldn’t play 40 minutes or anything like that, but he can play.”
Vanderbilt, who injured his left foot in late September, has a history of foot and ankle injuries dating back to his time as a high school player. The plan has always been to wait until he’s 100 percent healthy to get him back on the court this season, and — as Calipari has said — part of that is being fully ready mentally to return from injury and know he can make a difference in games.
Calipari also noted that he’s “not challenging” Vanderbilt to come back at a certain time. He’ll return when he’s ready to play, the UK coach has said, and no sooner than that.
“I’d like his first game to be a home game, so he can get some love, kind of work through what he’s got to work through,” Calipari said. “I’d rather have that than a road game. But I’m going to leave that up to him.”
UK’s next home game is Jan. 20 against Florida.
Calipari said Vanderbilt “changed up practice” with his physical play and toughness Monday. His teammates agreed with that assessment, and they’re also looking forward to getting him into the Wildcats’ rotation.
“He gives us another element,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. “He’s a matchup problem. He can create off the dribble at the ‘4’ spot. And he was really tough in practice. Physical. He made us better yesterday in practice, and I can’t wait for him to get back.”
Hamidou Diallo pointed out that he was in a similar situation last season.
Diallo wasn’t injured, but he joined UK’s team as a midseason enrollee, and there was speculation the rest of the season on whether he would play for the Cats. He didn’t, and he acknowledged Tuesday night that it will be tough for Vanderbilt to make his debut and find his place at this stage in the season.
“I came around this time last year, and I can’t picture myself trying to play with that team when I came in,” Diallo said. “It’s definitely tough, but he’s been taking on the challenge. He’s been practicing, and he’s been trying to learn. That’s just the biggest thing, is just learning. And when he gets in, we’re going to have to help him as much as possible.
“I just can’t wait to get him back on the floor and just get him to play basketball again. Everybody that plays basketball, you want to see them playing and you want to see them happy. And injuries are just a bad part of the game. It’s something that’s unfortunate, and that happens.”
Vanderbilt injured his left foot two summers ago, and that setback lingered into his senior season of high school. Vanderbilt hurt his right ankle late in the Jordan Brand Classic in April, an unfortunate end to what was otherwise a stellar showing on the postseason all-star circuit.
The 6-foot-9 forward was the No. 12 overall prospect in the 247Sports composite rankings for the 2017 class, and he was known as one of the top rebounders in the high school ranks. Calipari has called him the best shot-blocker on the team and a “willing passer,” something he says this UK team needs.
Vanderbilt also has the look of a 6-9 linebacker. “He’s always been strong up top with skinny legs,” PJ Washington said with a smile. “That’s him. His arms are just so big it’s crazy.”
None of Vanderbilt’s teammates speculated on when exactly he might be ready to make his UK debut — “I’m not a trainer,” Diallo quipped — but that day seems to be coming. At one point this season, it was questionable whether Vanderbilt would play at all. That no longer appears to be a concern.
“Jarred is a playmaker. He’s a 6-9 playmaker,” Diallo said. “That’s what he’s going to bring to this team. And he can play multiple positions. Once we get him back, we’re just going to get better. But right now, we can’t be banking on that. We’re just trying to go on with the season. And when he comes back, we’re just going to try and adapt him in, as best as possible.”