LEXINGTON, Ky. — John Calipari said an interesting thing Monday while announcing that it is unlikely 5-star freshman forward Jarred Vanderbilt will play for Kentucky in the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
As he explained that even if Vanderbilt’s sprained left ankle is 85-90 percent healthy, he likely wouldn’t play him Thursday night against Davidson or in a potential second-round matchup with Arizona Saturday, Calipari threw this out there: “He’s proven who he is as a player.”
What does that mean? That if Vanderbilt’s plan was to be another Kentucky one-and-done, his work in 14 college games has been enough to hear his named called in the 2018 NBA Draft and the 6-foot-9 former McDonald’s All-American need not risk another injury in the meantime?
If so, ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz disagrees.
“If I were [Vanderbilt], I would definitely consider coming back to school, just to put together a full year of production and improve his offensive game,” Schmitz told SEC Country. “If he were to enter the draft, he would probably be picked somewhere in the second round. But he’s still only 18 years old and has room to improve, so with the injury stuff, it would benefit him to go back to Kentucky and prove some things.”
Like that he can stay healthy for a full season. Vanderbilt injured his left foot twice in high school and again on the eve of UK’s first preseason practice, so he missed the team’s first 17 games. Then he played 14 and sprained his left ankle in practice on the Monday before the SEC Tournament and missed all three games in St. Louis.
Vanderbilt traveled with the team, wore normal sneakers on the bench and walked — or hobbled — without the aid of crutches or any visible protective gear on the ankle. He climbed a ladder to snip his piece of the net after the Wildcats won their fourth consecutive SEC Tournament title.
“He wants to play,” Calipari said Monday. Kentucky is the No. 5 seed in the South Region and opens NCAA Tournament play Thursday night against No. 12 seed Davidson. “But I just don’t see it right now, putting him in there and being comfortable about it.”
Kentucky (24-10) would really miss Vanderbilt’s defense and rebounding in a potential second-round matchup with Arizona and projected No. 1 draft pick Deandre Ayton. Vanderbilt averaged 5.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in just 17 minutes per game while available.
He averaged 18.5 rebounds per 40 minutes and his offensive and total rebound percentages would rank No. 1 nationally if he’d played enough to qualify. But Vanderbilt is very much a work in progress offensively, needing a recent hot streak just to raise his field-goal percentage to 42.6 percent.
“I really like his length and energy and athleticism and obviously the rebounding,” Schmitz said. “But in today’s NBA, you’ve got to be able to make a shot, and he has a lot of work to do there. I’m just not sure 14 games, up and down, with some injury stuff and the offensive struggles, is enough to be a first-round pick.”
ESPN currently ranks Vanderbilt the 60th-best eligible prospect for 2018 — there are 60 picks in the draft — and does not include him in its latest mock selection. Sources close to the Kentucky program have told SEC Country that multiple NBA scouts who’ve evaluated Vanderbilt believe he needs more development.
“If I were him, I’d go back to school,” Schmitz said. “Show everything he can do for a full year and he could definitely be a first-round guy as a sophomore.”