The will-he-or-won’t-he-play question hanging over Jarred Vanderbilt and this UK basketball team since late September was finally answered last week, when the five-star freshman stepped on the court for the first time at South Carolina.
The next question: will he, or won’t he, leave Kentucky for the NBA Draft after what will basically be half a season as a college basketball player?
The 6-foot-9 forward has played limited minutes in just three games, but — even before he made his UK debut — there was plenty of talk around the program that he expected to be a one-and-done draft pick after this season.
His current stock would suggest there’s a lot of work to do to make that a reality.
ESPN’s lead NBA Draft analyst, Jonathan Givony, placed Vanderbilt at No. 50 overall on his most recent list of the Top 100 prospects for this year’s draft. That would put him in the back end of the second round.
Givony, who talked to the Herald-Leader about Vanderbilt’s current draft prospects before Tuesday night’s game against Mississippi State, acknowledged that “it would be unfair to say too much” about Vanderbilt’s play so far this season given the extremely small sample size and understandable rust from sitting out the first 17 games of the season with a foot injury.
There’s half a season of basketball left to be played, but, for now, NBA decision makers have only the past to grade Vanderbilt’s upside.
“They definitely need to see him play, because it’s not like he was any kind of sure thing,” Givony said. “He’s not Michael Porter, where you knew that this guy was for sure a one-and-done player.”
Porter, currently No. 5 in ESPN’s draft rankings, arrived at Missouri as the Naismith high school player of the year and a possible No. 1 overall pick, but a back injury has sidelined him for the entire season. Still, an NBA team near the top of the draft will surely make him one of the top picks later this year.
Vanderbilt wasn’t as highly touted as a recruit or an NBA Draft prospect coming out of high school. He was the No. 12 overall player in the 2017 class, according to the 247Sports composite rankings, but — even before his latest injury, the second to his left foot in the past two years — Givony never projected him as a first-round, one-and-done pick.
The biggest knock on Vanderbilt as a pro prospect is clear.
“He can’t shoot,” Givony said.
According to the draft analyst’s database of Vanderbilt’s statistics in several settings as a high school player, he was a 21 percent three-point shooter and a 44-percent free-throw shooter. Vanderbilt did show some improvement in his mid-range and outside shooting during practices leading up to postseason all-star events like the McDonald’s All-American Game and Nike Hoop Summit last spring, but, again, those were small sample sizes.
“He has to show that there’s some potential for him to develop into some kind of threat from the outside,” Givony said. “Because if you look at today’s NBA, unless you’re someone like Ben Simmons, there’s not really anybody in the NBA who is like a perimeter guy who has no ability to make — not only a jump shot — but also a free throw.
“So, is this guy going to be able to score at all at the NBA level? It’s not like he’s this physically imposing beast.”
Vanderbilt has a strong upper body, but his lower-body strength has always been lacking for a player of his size and position. “He’s always been strong up top with skinny legs,” teammate PJ Washington said this month. Washington said it with a smile, but he’s correct.
Now, obviously, Vanderbilt was ranked No. 12 in his class for a reason. He does plenty of things well, and UK has already benefited from some of his early contributions.
Givony reflected on his positives as a younger prospect.
“I like how physical he is. I like how hard he plays,” he said. “His ability to take a rebound off the glass and go coast to coast. His ability to play at different speeds. He’s a good slasher, and he’s got some versatility defensively — you can put him on a lot of different types of guys. And he’s not a bad passer either.
“He’s got some intriguing tools. But the shooting is just a killer in today’s NBA. So if he can’t fix that, there are some real question marks if he’s a viable NBA player at all.”
If Vanderbilt is indeed hoping to be drafted this year, he has a lot of company. And — maybe even moreso than teammate Hamidou Diallo, who was in a similar situation last season — Vanderbilt still has a whole lot to prove.
“It all depends on how he plays the rest of the year,” Givony said. “If he feels that way (about leaving early) — there are probably 100 other guys in college right now who also think that they’re first-round picks. But, unfortunately, there are only 60 draft picks. There are only 30 in the first round.
“The great thing is that he’ll be able to put his name in the draft and go through the process. And either he’ll listen to what NBA teams tell him, or he won’t — or maybe he’ll blow them away at the Combine or in workouts. And then maybe he can get one of those late first-round spots. But it’s all very speculative right now.”
This is the second in a series of articles looking at the NBA Draft prospects of the current UK team near the midway point of this season.