LEXINGTON, Ky. — There was a glimmer of hope Thursday that 5-star Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt’s left foot injury is not as bad as initially thought, and coach John Calipari explained why he’s praying for that to be the case. By the sound of it, for all the Wildcats’ talent, Vanderbilt could be the difference between a good team this season and a great one.
“They’re going to reevaluate here in another week or so, then figure out where it goes,” Calipari said. “It would be an unbelievable blessing for him — and us — if he were able to start coming back to play. They wanted to look at it a little bit more before they made a decision, and let him feel it, see what he felt like.”
Eleven days earlier, Kentucky announced that Vanderbilt was expected to miss three months because that foot, which had also been a problem during his high school career, likely required surgery. He has still not had that surgery.
“We’re just trying to be optimistic,” Vanderbilt said. “Hopefully it’s not as bad as it [seemed]. But right now, I’m just playing it by ear.”
While the timetable for return remains unclear, his value to the Wildcats is quite obvious. Despite four other 5-star forwards on the roster, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt brings a unique skillset that will be missed however long he’s out.
“It affects us two different ways,” Calipari said. “If we were to press or play a small lineup, it would have been with him in there. 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. So that changes us.”
Calipari talks endlessly about what he calls positionless basketball, and Vanderbilt personifies that. He could legitimately play all five positions on the floor, Calipari and his teammates say, better than anyone else on the roster.
“If we had Jarred playing, you could play without a point guard, because he could be the point guard, so we were really interchangeable,” Calipari said. “When you step him back off, you’re not quite as interchangeable. You could have played Jarred [as] the point forward.”
There is a defensive impact as well.
“The shot-blocking team we were going to be changes without him,” Calipari said. “He may have been our best shot-blocker.”
Vanderbilt’s talented teammates echoed their coach’s sentiments: Sure, the Wildcats will be fine without him, but they figure to be so much better with him.
“He can play one through five, guard one through five,” forward P.J. Washington said. “We don’t have anybody like him on this team. He’s special.”
Fellow forward Kevin Knox, who is most similar to Vanderbilt, is eager to get him back — almost selfishly.
“Jarred is really good at pushing the ball and finding the open guy, throwing alley oops. He has really good touch on his passes,” Knox said. “I’m 100 percent sure he’s going to come back and be perfectly fine.”
The initial timeline would’ve had Vanderbilt coming back in January, in time for the start of Southeastern Conference play. Now maybe that return will be sooner — but with a chronic and somewhat mysterious foot ailment, it could also be later.
Whenever it is, “I feel like the chemistry will just click because of the relationship we have off the court,” Vanderbilt said. “Of course I want to play. That’s what I came here to do. But there’s also some pros to it: I can sit back and watch film and study the plays.”
One other positive spin: Vanderbilt is now Kentucky’s somewhat secret weapon. Perhaps just when opponents feel like they have a handle on how to stop these Wildcats, here comes another versatile, 6-9 forward who isn’t on any of the scouting reports.
“That’ll be really good. I never really thought about that,” Knox said. “They’re going to be like, ‘Who’s this?’ When he comes back with his ability to rebound and push, they’re going to be like, ‘Who is this guy? He wasn’t on film.’ Like Cal said, we can go with me, Hami [Diallo], Jarred, P.J. and Wenyen [Gabriel] as our five, just because of our ability to rebound, push the ball and defend.”
That would be a 6-9 “point guard,” 6-6 shooting guard and 6-7, 6-9 and 6-9 forwards — everyone on the court with a 6-foot-11 wingspan or greater. It would be a fascinating (terrifying?) lineup. So now Calipari and the Cats wait for the first chance to unleash it.
Previewing the 2017-18 Wildcats
- P.J. Washington has ‘ridiculous’ length, ‘relentless’ style
- How football got 5-star Kevin Knox to Kentucky
- Freshman PG Quade Green already leading young Cats
- Teammates: Hamidou Diallo can dominate … if he wants to
- Wenyen Gabriel is a fighter, and UK needs him to be
- What the Wildcats will miss while Jarred Vanderbilt is out
- John Calipari sees 2014 Cats, good and bad, in this team
- Full 6,500-word Calipari preseason Q&A
- Players vote on Cats’ best dunker and best shooter