LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari is obsessed with the idea of “positionless” basketball and stocking his roster with long, tall, versatile athletes who can play and defend any spot on the floor. The 2017-18 Wildcats fit that bill with five 5-star forwards who could play on the wing or in the paint.
But who among them — freshmen Kevin Knox, Jarred Vanderbilt and P.J. Washington, sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones — is the most positionless?
“Probably Jarred,” Calipari said back in August, during a preseason roundtable interview with a handful of local reporters. “What the hell is he? He’s 6-9 and everybody loves him. You talk to anybody that evaluates us and they’re all like, ‘Wow.’ ”
That assessment stings for Kentucky fans today, after it was announced over the weekend that Vanderbilt, a McDonald’s All-American and consensus top-15 recruit in the Class of 2017, will miss three months with a foot injury that likely requires surgery.
The Wildcats are hopeful he can return by January, in time for Southeastern Conference play and the NCAA Tournament, and they’ll need him. Despite an embarrassment of riches at forward, Vanderbilt is a little different than all the rest. Asked who on the team was best suited to play all five positions on the floor, he agreed with Calipari that it’s him.
“I feel like we’re going to create a lot of mismatches,” Vanderbilt told SEC Country in a one-on-one interview in August. “I think [Calipari] is going to use us all together. Like he says positionless basketball, I feel like we can actually do that.”
Despite his injury, Kentucky is lucky it landed Vanderbilt — because he helped recruit Knox, a fellow McDonald’s All-American, by convincing him there was room for all those 6-foot-9 guys on the same team.
“We made him feel like we really wanted him here,” Vanderbilt said. “That’s why Cal says this place isn’t for everybody. If you’re worried about another guy taking your shine, stuff like that, then this is not the place to be. I’m so confident in my game and what I can bring to the table that I’m going to find my way onto the floor regardless. And he’s a great player as well, so why not want to play against him every day in practice? That’s going to elevate both of our games.”
Now that will have to wait, which is a particularly frustrating development for Vanderbilt, who as eager to put questions about his health behind him. He dealt with foot injuries in high school and raised new concerns when he suffered an ankle injury during the Jordan Brand Classic this spring.
Finally “100 percent healthy” in August, Vanderbilt figured he would’ve been a more talked-about prospect had he not suffered so many setbacks.
“I think my name would be a lot more popular without the injuries. Because now when you think of my name it’s more so, ‘Is he all right with the injury?’ instead of my actual game,” Vanderbilt said, ominously, back then. “But it’s all good. I’m just ready for the season and hopefully kill all that talk.”
He suffered his latest injury 39 days later, on the eve of the Wildcats’ first official preseason practice.