After Tuesday night’s down-to-the-wire 74-73 victory over Texas A&M, a few Kentucky Wildcats and their head coach raved about the recent play of a freshman who wasn’t even on the court against the Aggies.
Jarred Vanderbilt has returned to practice after missing more than three months with a foot injury, and — from the comments made Tuesday night — it sounds as if he’ll make his college basketball debut sometime soon.
So, what should UK fans expect when Vanderbilt finally checks in to his first game as a Wildcat?
First, it’s best to temper expectations, at least for the time being.
Yes, Vanderbilt — a versatile, 6-foot-9 forward from Texas — was one of the best high school prospects in the country last season. But he wasn’t a transcendent talent — by five-star standards — expected to contend for All-America honors in his freshman season. There’s a good chance he wouldn’t have started for the Cats even if healthy.
Vanderbilt was seen as an important piece to a UK team that was expected to have several capable playmakers, but no puts-up-big-numbers-every-night superstar.
Being sidelined for three months will almost certainly limit his production.
UK Coach John Calipari mentioned Tuesday night that — when Vanderbilt is ready to play — fans shouldn’t expect to see him playing major minutes, and that makes sense. Fatigue is often a problem for young players — it has been at times for this season’s young team — and Vanderbilt’s injury has probably affected his conditioning. It’ll take time to get him back to full strength in that area.
Hamidou Diallo said Tuesday night that getting acclimated to his teammates on the court will be a challenge for Vanderbilt, who has been watching practices all season, working out to some extent and is now practicing, but hasn’t had the opportunity to build much real basketball chemistry with UK’s other players.
“When he gets in, we’re going to have to help him as much as possible,” Diallo said.
The learning curve will be steep, even for someone of Vanderbilt’s ability.
That said, he should be able to provide some immediate benefit to the Wildcats.
Several viewings of Vanderbilt’s game in high school, AAU and all-star circuit settings showed him to be a competitive player, and the frustration of sitting out for so much of his freshman season should lead to determined play once he does hit the court. He apparently has already been showing that in these recent practices.
“I never remembered him being as physically strong as he is,” Calipari said. “He changed up practice. It was physical.”
The things Vanderbilt did best as a high school prospect should also carry over quickly to the college game.
Three of his best traits — rebounding, blocking shots and passing — will all be welcome on this young Kentucky team, and affecting the game in those ways could help Vanderbilt make an impact without the pressure of having to be a go-to scorer.
Vanderbilt’s upper-body strength, athleticism, quickness and length — he has a 7-1 wingspan — made him one of the best rebounders in the high school ranks. He averaged 10.9 boards during his last summer on the highly competitive Nike circuit, and he has always shown a knack for getting to loose balls, winning 50/50 balls and using impeccable timing to beat out opponents for rebounds.
His ballhandling ability — he has experience running the point — also allows him to turn defensive rebounds into potential fast breaks, a plus on this versatile team.
Calipari called Vanderbilt the team’s best shot blocker during the preseason, and many of the traits that make him such a great rebounder — length, athleticism, timing — have made him a terrific post defender, especially in help situations.
He can trail offensive players and block them from behind. If one of his perimeter teammates gets beat off the dribble, he can come from different angles to contest. And if one of his fellow frontcourt teammates needs help, he has the instincts to slide over.
“When you block shots, it’s not your man that you block. Someone else is guarding a man, and you block that guy’s shot,” Calipari said in October. “That’s shot blocking. Shot blocking isn’t, ‘I play a guy and I block his shot.’ That means you left your feet, fouled. My job is to occupy his eyes and you block his shot. He was unbelievable at that.”
On Tuesday night, Calipari referred to Vanderbilt as a “willing passer,” certainly one of the best aspects of his game as a high school recruit.
Though he was always the best player, by far, on his high school team, and often the best player on whatever court he was playing on, Vanderbilt showed tremendous ability as a passer. His quickness with the ball led to creative passes — rarely seen in players his size — and put his teammates in better scoring situations. He often excelled at drawing help defenders toward him, then making the right pass — at the right time — to the teammate left open as a result.
Calipari mentioned in the preseason that he had planned to use Vanderbilt against zone defenses, putting him in the middle of the action, running the ball through him and allowing his passing ability to keep defenders moving, thus creating open looks for teammates (or himself).
Vanderbilt was a high-volume scorer throughout his high school career, but there were questions on how that part of his game would transfer immediately to the college level. He’s a capable driver for his size, but he has never been elite in that area.
He was long considered a poor outside shooter, which would further limit his ability to put the ball on the floor at this level. Vanderbilt did show improvement in his shot during the all-star games last spring, but that was a small sample size, and reports of his shooting during UK’s practices have been mixed.
Again, any offensive production that Vanderbilt can provide this season will be icing on the cake. His true, immediate value to this team will come in other areas.
It’s just a matter of when he’ll be ready to make those contributions.
No. 21 Kentucky at Vanderbilt
4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)