Speaking to reporters for the first time since Kentucky’s media day in October, Jarred Vanderbilt said he did not feel pressure to “save” the season.
“There’s no pressure, really, just playing the game,” he said Monday. “That’s how I played my whole life. Just trying to bring what I can to the table, and really just enhance our team. Just start to get back to winning and playing Kentucky basketball.”
No doubt, UK Coach John Calipari, who sometimes laments the players playing with the metaphorical weight of the world on their shoulders, approved.
“He shouldn’t feel that,” Calipari said.
That would mean not listening to the hyperbole uttered in the last week by college basketball analysts.
During the ESPN College GameDay show, Seth Greenberg declared that Vanderbilt “will change the DNA” of Kentucky. “A point forward like Ben Simmons,” Greenberg said. Simmons, who played one season for LSU, was the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Greenberg also spoke of Vanderbilt, whose college career at that point consisted of 14 minutes in one game, elevating Kentucky to an Elite Eight-caliber team.
Vanderbilt returned from a foot injury to play for the first time for UK at South Carolina last week. During the telecast of that game, Sean Farnham was only slightly more hyperbolic in his assessment. He said Vanderbilt “could be a complete game-changer” for Kentucky.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt himself are taking a cautious approach.
“I just wanted to get 100 percent …,” Vanderbilt said of making his debut on Jan. 16. “I’ve had multiple, a couple of injuries already. I just wanted to play it on the safe side. I didn’t want to rush back out there, go too fast and have it happen again.”
Vanderbilt injured his left foot two summers ago. At a Team USA camp in June of 2016, doctors diagnosed him with a stress fracture. He wore a boot the rest of the summer.
Vanderbilt re-injured the foot again in his senior season of high school. His medical history also includes a right ankle injury at the Jordan Brand Classic last April. He re-injured the left foot in late September, which he said was unrelated to an earlier injury to the foot.
“It felt pretty good,” Vanderbilt said of his foot after two games. “You know, it’s getting better by the day. Each week it’s progressing. The main thing now is me getting in shape, me trying to learn more of the offense. Basically try to fit in where I can.”
As to how much of the UK offense and defense he’s mastered, Vanderbilt said, “I’m getting there.”
In his first two games, Vanderbilt averaged 13.5 minutes. He grabbed 11 rebounds, which reflected a competitive approach. He also scored 10 points and has three assists.
“I’ve just always been a competitor,” he said. “Pretty much do anything for the team. If I’m not scoring, I at least want to rebound. Just to do something to impact the team and be productive when I’m out there on the floor.”
His contribution could potentially include a leadership role. “I feel eventually I can probably get to that point,” he said. “I try to lead by example, and be vocal as well.”
Calipari seemed to suggest that Vanderbilt could take the leadership role that Kentucky has seemed to lack.
“He’s a little bit of a leader,” Calipari said. “But you can’t lead from the tub. And it’s hard to lead from the bench.”
Vanderbilt acknowledged being surprised to be have a point guard role at South Carolina. Quade Green’s back injury and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s off game led Calipari to turn to Vanderbilt.
“It was surprising,” he said. “We didn’t much really plan it. We just went with the flow.”
As for how much he’s shown of his game so far, Vanderbilt said, “I think I’ve shown flashes … in the limited minutes I’ve had. The more minutes I play, the more it will show.”
Whether the difference he can makes evokes memories of Simmons or gets Kentucky to the Elite Eight or beyond remains to be seen. Vanderbilt has more immediate objectives.
“Just being the extra spark at midseason,” he said. “Not saying guys are down, but it’s that midseason way for me to come and have an extra spark of energy. Just a boost for the team.”
Mississippi State at Kentucky
When: 9 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: MSU 14-5 (2-4 SEC); UK 14-5 (4-3 SEC)
Series: UK leads 94-20
Last meeting: UK won 88-81 on Jan. 17, 2017, in Starkville, Miss.