Jarred Vanderbilt is a defensive chameleon. That label doesn’t arise solely by the conventional thought of him guarding a range of assignments, a la Ben Simmons, but more so by the notion he will undertake virtually any responsibility asked of him.
This season, Vanderbilt’s matchup catalog stretches from Stephen Curry to Giannis Antetokounmpo, so the Minnesota Timberwolves evidently value his versatility at the point of attack. During a December game against the Dallas Mavericks, he went from defending 7-foot center Kristaps Porzingis on one possession before taking 6’1 point guard Jalen Brunson on the next. But he’s not a one-hit wonder, and Minnesota’s coaching staff realizes it.
Excelling as a frenetic on-ball stopper, weak-side rim protector, perimeter helper, and custodian on the glass, intentional chaos is integral to his game. Vanderbilt is one of the league’s best defenders. Nobody channels their motor into tangible impact better than him. The shortlist of 2021-22 All-Defensive Team candidates should undoubtedly include him.
Under head coach Chris Finch, the Timberwolves employ an aggressive pick-and-roll coverage predicated on trapping or showing with the primary big man, most often Karl-Anthony Towns. That represents a shift from the traditional drop defense he overwhelmingly played previously in his career.
Vanderbilt’s functionality as a back-line roamer helps enable success via that scheme. Even if Towns, with his swirling limbs and domineering frame, can’t fluster ball-handlers, Vanderbilt looms large, ready to patch up any holes.
His off-ball talents span well beyond low man duties, though. He can play the nail to bother drivers, excels at denying or pilfering passes and blanketing cutters, and embraces battles against bigger opponents. Mindless decisions from the offense send up a flare for him to pounce. Execution must be crisp when he’s in the vicinity.
The haste with which he covers ground on rotations looks like he’s moving at warp speed while everyone else’s transmission is stuck in neutral. His lateral quickness belies his 6’9 stature, and augments his swift hands and turbo-charged playmaking.
Just note all the varying off-ball jobs on his resume. Many players can specialize in a few areas off the ball. Vanderbilt seems comfortable with nearly all of the prominent ones that routinely factor into possessions.
According to Cleaning The Glass, his 2.6 percent steal rate ranks in the 96th percentile among bigs, a season after his 2.3 percent steal rate placed him in the 97th percentile. Put simply, few front-court players generate takeaways like him.
When the situation demands, he’s similarly adept at setting the tone on the ball. Sometimes, Minnesota even tabs him as the primary big man in ball-screen schemes, whether it’s switching, showing or trapping, if Towns is having a down night defending the pick-and-roll. He’s the Timberwolves’ handyman, and he’s earned an immense amount of trust from Finch.
He’ll pester star scorers to the point of defeat on a possession, ensuring they’re aware of his 7’1 wingspan and all its powers. Bumps and bruises as they maneuver are part of enduring the Jarred Vanderbilt Experience. Brief exhaustion causing a minor slip-up for him to expose is an intended byproduct of his approach.
He’s an unrelenting nuisance, one who’s long and skilled with an array of lively athletic tools. Hellish feels like an apt word to describe facing him.
Vanderbilt’s footprint also shifts outside of any defensive construct. Many players throughout NBA history have proven that playing really freakin’ hard all the time is a skill, and he’s the gold standard for it today. He generates countless possessions by simply refusing to concede that it’s time to switch ends. If you’re watching Minnesota, think the opposing team has secured control of the ball, and look up to see otherwise, the answer to “how did the Wolves get the ball back?” is Vanderbilt more often than not.
Calling him an energy guy undersells his game, but ignoring that facet also paints an incomplete image. Energy is legitimately a component of how he sparks events and points. There’s not a single other player who authors the plays below like him on a nightly basis.
Despite being a 6’9 forward with little on-ball creation zest and just three career triples to his name, Vanderbilt offers steady offensive contributions. Various teams will opt to put their 4-man on Towns and let the center/best rim protector sag off Vanderbilt as a free safety helper.
To counter that and not impede the offense, he’ll hunt out screen-setting chances and swiftly flow into dribble handoffs when the ball comes his way. He’s also a marvelous cutter from all over the court, a savvy connective passer, and dynamite offensive rebounder with a knack for shrewdly high-pointing and tracking boards.
Minnesota has a 115.9 offensive rating when Vanderbilt is on the floor. While he likely benefits a good deal by predominantly playing alongside Towns, he really does understand how to thrive in spite of his limitations. Plus, their relationship is symbiotic because he pilots and simplifies the defense for his All-Star teammate, which is a significant part of why they share the floor so much.
He’s a crafty, patient finisher shooting 69 percent at the rim and rarely hampers Towns, D’Angelo Russell, and Anthony Edwards’ creation efforts. He keenly slips screens to dive into a vacated paint and has the requisite body control to contort for buckets. If there’s space to inhabit that can aid his team, no matter how minute, he will identify and utilize it. On both ends, he flourishes in busy spaces, a rarity for many 6’9 bigs.
Vanderbilt ranks third in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus (plus-3.4) and 30th overall in Estimated Plus-Minus (also, plus-3.4). He’s not an All-Star-caliber guy, but those numbers shouldn’t be disregarded. The majority of plays involving him feel impactful, and he is constantly searching for a way to make something transpire for his team. A team making a playoff push deservedly starts him because he is quite good.
He’s an elite defender who dons whatever cap is required in a given game, lineup, or possession. His offensive utility is much narrower, but he plays exceptionally well off of Minnesota’s hubs. Everything he provides helps shape its identity.
Vanderbilt may not be captaining the Timberwolves toward the playoffs. Yet he’ll absolutely etch his mark there this spring, adapting to whatever defensive role they lay out for him.