Kentucky Basketball: Now that he’s practicing, what will Jarred Vanderbilt add to Cats?
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You might’ve heard the tiny bit of news that came out of John Calipari’s call-in radio show on Monday night: 5-star freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt is finally practicing with the team — and looking good. Which leads to the question(s) of the day: Will he actually play for Kentucky this season? And what kind of impact might he make on a team that has been good but not great?
First off, to clarify, while Monday is the first we heard of it, I’m told Vanderbilt had been steadily working his way into a full-blown practice for about a week, starting with short bursts and working his way up to what was apparently a complete and impressive session Monday.
I’ve seen that some UK fans remain skeptical that he’ll actually suit up and play this season — citing Hamidou Diallo practicing but not playing last season — but I’m getting the sense from folks around the program that, barring a setback to that thrice-injured foot, Vanderbilt plans to play. (When, I still don’t know.)
So what does he add to these young Wildcats? Now seems like a good time to revisit some preseason comments on Vanderbilt.
I asked Calipari during a summer roundtable Q&A with a handful of local reporters who is the most “positionless” player (his favorite buzzword) on this roster. “Probably Jarred,” he said. “What the hell is he? He’s 6-9 and everybody loves him.”
The coach didn’t mean loves his personality (although that apparently is a strength as well), rather that every basketball person who sees the kid is impressed with his size, skill set and athleticism.
Getting in the gameday frame of mind. pic.twitter.com/8QmSnde336
— Kentucky Basketball (@KentuckyMBB) January 9, 2018
When Vanderbilt went down, Calipari said: “We’re going to be fine, but this hurts us. We’ll get through this, but this is going to affect us.” And he was right. Vanderbilt has NBA lottery pick potential, and no team — even one stocked with other McDonald’s All-Americans — can lose that and not feel it.
“If we were to press or play a small lineup, it would have been with him in there,” Calipari said shortly after the foot injury. “Second thing is, if we were going against a zone defense, the first thing you do is put him in the middle of the zone because of how he plays: passes, drives, his ability to make plays.”
Calipari went on to say that if Jarred were available — as it seems he soon will be — “you could play without a point guard because he could be the point guard [he later called him a point forward], so we were really interchangeable.”
Vanderbilt was also considered an elite rebounder and defender (inside and out) coming out of high school.
“He may have been our best shot blocker,” Calipari said before the season, calling him especially adept at erasing shots when he is the helper on defense. “He was unbelievable at that.”
If this all sounds like stuff Kentucky could use right now — and perhaps put the Cats over the top from competitive to contender — that’s exactly what the staff daydreamed about when it signed Vanderbilt.
“He can do anything on the court,” freshman forward PJ Washington said. “He can play one through five, guard one through five. We don’t have anything like him on this team. He’s special.”
And now, after months on the shelf, Vanderbilt gets to be UK’s secret weapon. Said teammate Kevin Knox:
“When he comes back with his ability to rebound and push, [opponents] are going to be like, ‘Who is this guy? He wasn’t on film.’ ”