EDITOR’S NOTE: Kentucky Insider is a weekly column in which SEC Country will take Big Blue Nation behind the curtain for a peek at the pursuit of UK basketball’s ninth national championship.
LEXINGTON, Ky. — It’s really quite something, the way narratives can pivot on a dime, like a 6-foot-9 point forward with a killer crossover.
First, Jarred Vanderbilt was a freeloader who many fans were convinced would never play a minute at Kentucky because he was protecting his thrice-injured left foot and the NBA draft stock that hinges on his health.
Now, since he finally made his college debut in the Wildcats’ 18th game and delivered 10 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists and a block in 27 total minutes the last two games, Vanderbilt has become the savior of this shaky season.
Well, which is it?
“I really didn’t pay [the criticism] much mind, because I know if those guys looked at it from my perspective, they probably would have done the same thing — or even if they had a child, done it the same way,” Vanderbilt said Monday, speaking to reporters for the first time since preseason. “Being that I’ve had a couple injuries already, I just wanted to play it on the safe side. I didn’t want to rush back out there, go too fast, and it ended up happening again.”
So … not a freeloader. OK, but what about savior for a Kentucky team that is unranked in the Associated Press poll for the first time since 2014 and trying Tuesday night against Mississippi State to avoid its first three-game losing streak in nine seasons under John Calipari?
Vanderbilt is a McDonald’s All-American with abnormal versatility and what would appear to be the best motor on a roster full of fellow freshmen who can’t seem to keep that thing cranked up consistently. You can see why he might feel the need to do some saving.
“He shouldn’t feel that,” Calipari said. But on the other hand, he’s already tapped Vanderbilt to take charge of this floundering team. “He’s a little bit of a leader, but you can’t lead from the tub. It’s hard to lead from the bench. You gotta be on the court, you gotta be performing, and they you’ve got a chance. So he’s starting [to lead]. He’s a great kid. He wants to make plays for his teammates.”
Wait, that sounds like something in the middle of the two extreme narratives we’ve heard about Vanderbilt in as many weeks. It’s almost as if he’s neither freeloader nor savior, rather a really tall, talented, high-energy guy who elevates his teammates’ play by setting a tone — and he just needed some time to feel mentally and physically ready to put all that on display.
“There’s no pressure, really, just playing the game. That’s how I’ve played my whole life,” Vanderbilt said. “Just being an extra spark midseason. Not saying guys are down, but just that midseason way for me to come in, have an extra spark of energy, just a boost for the team pretty much.
“I try to lead by example — and be vocal as well [but] mainly just try to challenge these guys every day in practice by going hard, having energy, having a motor. Hopefully they feed off that. It’ll do nothing but better our team. That’s the goal.”
And here’s the best news for Kentucky: Vanderbilt is only going to get more comfortable within the offense and more confident on that foot — “it’s getting better by the day” — and fitter with each passing game. For all the fretting over whether his return would be too little too late, there are as many as 15 more games before the NCAA Tournament.
Vanderbilt ran on a zero-gravity treadmill and worked out in the pool to stay fit while his foot healed, but that’s not close to keeping in basketball shape. He has looked totally gassed in both brief appearances so far, by that shouldn’t be a problem by March.
“I’ve shown flashes,” Vanderbilt said. “As I get in better shape, the more minutes I play, the more I’ll show.”
Slow, steady, deliberate, building toward the chance to play a major role when it matters most, is not not nearly as sexy a narrative as zero-to-hero. But it is the true story of this season for Kentucky and its most talked-about player.