LEXINGTON, Ky. — A bothersome left foot has made former 5-star prospect Jarred Vanderbilt a bit of a mystery this season. But Vanderbilt’s debut seems near and his teammates have been encouraged by what they’ve seen in practice.
Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said Vanderbilt gives the Cats “another element.” Versatile and toughness were two words Hamidou Diallo picked to describe him.
“He’s been tough since we were kids,” freshman forward PJ Washington said. “I’ve been playing him since third grade so I really know a lot about him. I can’t wait for him to get back. He’s a key to our team and we really need him. He’s gonna be great for us.”
Whether or not Vanderbilt will play this season has been a lingering concern. But then John Calipari said on his radio show Monday night that Vanderbilt was back on the practice floor and that his presence would change how UK plays.
Calipari followed up on those thoughts after Kentucky’s 74-73 win against Texas A&M on Tuesday night.
“I loved him in the shootaround,” Calipari said. “He’s just not mentally ready to go on the court. I basically told him, ‘Listen, when you go in, you’re going to play seven or eight minutes a half, limited minutes for a while. I’m going to put you out there, let you run around, let you feel good about yourself and you’re out.'”
Calipari has raved about Vanderbilt’s abilities, and stressed Tuesday that he’s a “willing passer” — something Kentucky needs. But Calipari said Vanderbilt’s return will be based more on his mental readiness.
Redshirt freshman guard Hamidou Diallo had an inside look last season of what Vanderbilt might face this year. Diallo joined the team in January and made it clear that he planned to sit the season out rather than join the fold in the middle of the season.
Vanderbilt has been with the team a semester longer than Diallo had, but he’ll face the struggle of fighting for minutes in a semi-established rotation.
“I came around this time last year and I can’t picture myself trying to play with that team when I came in,” Diallo said. “It’s definitely tough, but I mean he’s been taking on the challenge. He’s been practicing and he’s been trying to learn.”
Diallo was asked if he knows when Vanderbilt will return.
“No, I’m not a trainer,” he said.
It was a fair answer to a question many in the program have been asked this season. There’s still no definite timetable for Vanderbilt’s return, but it seems close.
Calipari wants his first game to be at home. The Wildcats don’t return to Rupp Arena until Jan. 20 against Florida.
“I’m not challenging him,” Calipari said. “I’d like it to be his first game, a home game, so he can get some love, kind of work through what he’s got to work through. I’d rather have that than a road game. But I’m going to leave that up to him.”
Watch: John Calipari’s postgame press conference
Watch: Kyle Tucker breaks down Kentucky’s win against Texas A&M