As Kentucky fans await the blossoming of Jarred Vanderbilt, he offered reassuring words Friday that his star-turn will come.
“Guys had, like, 18 games ahead of me already, so they were comfortable moving to spots,” he said. “I feel like the only thing, really, is time. . . . The shots will eventually fall.”
Because of a foot injury, Vanderbilt did not play until Jan. 16. His 6-for-24 shooting to date reflects the search to find his niche. He dismissed his 3.2-point scoring average as unimportant.
“I could really not care less about offense, right now,” he said. “Baskets will come.”
His role, he said, was “just being a spark off the bench and be an energy guy.” He’s grabbed 32 rebounds in 56 minutes of game action.
Vanderbilt explained his motivation to rebound as “just being the ultimate competitor.”
By now, that instinct is ingrained. “I’ve always just played hard,” he said. “And that’s kind of my motive.”
Assistant coach Tony Barbee, who substituted for John Calipari at the regular day-before-the-game news conference, described Vanderbilt as “the type of player who doesn’t necessarily need to have his hands on the ball to impact a game.
“And those guys are invaluable in any team kind of system.”
With Kentucky playing at Missouri on Saturday afternoon, Vanderbilt can impact the game with defense, blocking shots and rebounding.
“We anticipate him getting more comfortable,” Barbee said. “His energy is incredible.”
Barbee likened Vanderbilt to Wenyen Gabriel in terms of effort.
“It’s one of his strengths and his skill level is how hard he plays,” Barbee said. “How hard he competes. That becomes contagious.”
Vanderbilt dismissed the importance of finding a spot in the offense on the floor.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said. His versatility makes many spots part of a comfort zone, he said.
Barbee agreed. He likened Vanderbilt to Lamar Odom and Ben Simmons.
“With Jarred’s skill package, he’s comfortable everywhere on the floor,” he said. “Before the injury, he played everywhere from point guard to center, and everywhere in between. . . . He visually sees the game like a point guard. He happens to be 6-11.”
Vanderbilt’s late debut clashes with his teammates, whom Barbee suggested are beyond their freshman years in terms of experience.
As noted repeatedly this season, Barbee spoke of this Kentucky team lacking veteran leadership. For instance, last season’s team had veterans like Dominique Hawkins, Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder, Isaiah Briscoe and Isaac Humphries to show the way.
Of this season’s team, Barbee said, “Like typical freshmen, it’s going to be a roller-coaster ride. It’s up and it’s down. I think they’re progressing at a pace that normal freshmen progress.”
By late January/early February, there are “no more excuses,” Barbee said.
Missed shots and other reversals of fortune on the court can adversely affect freshmen, Barbee said. Nick Richards spoke of joining coaches in reviewing video of his play. The focus was on bad body language, he said.
Barbee did not embrace that label.
“Typical freshmen, they wear their frustrations on their sleeve,” he said. With a missed shot or some other reversal of fortune, “they let that affect the next play. Typical freshman stuff we’re dealing with. It’s not bad body language. . . . We try to get them to move on to the next play.”
With the absence of seasoned players, UK’s freshmen “don’t have the benefit of watching the veterans in front of them move on,” Barbee said.
Vanderbilt appears to be an exception. He has continued to play hard even while missing shots.
“Because he has no idea what he’s doing out there,” Barbee said with a smile. Vanderbilt sets a “great example,” Barbee added, in terms of “play as hard as he can every possession.”
No. 21 Kentucky at Missouri
When: 2 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 17-5 (6-3 SEC), Missouri 14-8 (4-5)
Series: Kentucky leads 10-0
Last meeting: Kentucky won 72-62 on Feb. 21, 2017, at Columbia, Mo.