COLUMBIA, S.C. — Five-star freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt finally made his Kentucky basketball debut in the Wildcats’ 18th game of the season Tuesday night at South Carolina.
Vanderbilt, a 6-foot-9 McDonald’s All-American who head coach John Calipari has alternated called a point forward, the team’s most versatile player and UK’s best shot blocker, injured his left foot for the third time since high school on the eve of the Cats’ first official practice in the fall. He progressed from individual workouts to small segments of practice to, finally, full practices with the team some time in the last two weeks.
While some fans grew frustrated by his continued absence, it became clear in recent days Vanderbilt was working up to his first game action — and coaches raved about what he would add to the Wildcats whenever he did.
His first game got off to a rocky start: Vanderbilt checked in with 13:08 to go in the first half, UK trailing 19-12, and promptly missed a shot, turned it over, missed two free throws and committed a foul in just 77 seconds of action before checking back out. He did grab one defensive rebound in that time.
His second and third appearances went much better, as Vanderbilt closed out the first half looking like perhaps the best player on the floor, showing off his slick ball handling skills, deft passing ability and rebounding prowess — all things UK’s staff raved about for months — to help the Cats erase an eight-point deficit and lead 37-34 at halftime.
He officially had 2 points, 3 rebounds and an assist in 7 minutes before the break, but Vanderbilt dished out three other dimes that teammates could not finish. He corralled a terrific offensive rebound, had a pogo-stick board on the other end and even accidentally tipped one in for USC while fighting for another.
Kentucky would’ve been up a creek without him against the Gamecocks, because starting point guard Quade Green (back), reserve forward Tai Wynyard (back) and freshman guard Jemarl Baker (knee) stayed back in Lexington, leaving the Cats with just seven available scholarship players for the third straight game had Vanderbilt not suited up. Then six UK players, including Vanderbilt, picked up two fouls in the first half.
Vanderbilt finished with six points on 2 of 5 shooting. He had five rebounds, three assists and two turnovers in 14 minutes played. The 6-foot-9 forward played plenty of point guard as UK was in foul trouble throughout the game.