Jarred Vanderbilt is the catalyst John Calipari’s 2018 Kentucky Wildcats have been looking for. He did not post an extravagant stat line. He did not dominate the game in any one particular way. That’s what makes him perfect for this team.
Vanderbilt’s surprise debut at South Carolina began with a flurry of frantic play all over the court. A wild missed four-footer barely hit the rim. An interior pass was thrown ten times too strong. He picked up a quick foul. He did everything you expect a kid to do in the first two minutes of his first college game.
Once Vanderbilt shook off the jitters, he plugged holes in UK’s sinking life-boat.
Without Quade Green for the third straight game, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander finally found himself on the bench in foul trouble. Hamidou Diallo was sitting right next to him on the bench, leaving Brad Calipari as the only guard available. Vanderbilt was prepared to fill the hole.
The 6’9″ small forward seamlessly turned into a point forward. The operator of the offense found Calipari for an open three. He turned an offensive rebound into an assist, an And One to Sacha Killeya-Jones. Even if the possession did not end in points, it ended with a good look that Vanderbilt created in the midst a choppy, physical game that had zero offensive flow. That was just while he was running point in the half-court.
On the other end of the court Vanderbilt played exceptional help defense, recovering in time to deny Chris Silva a dunk. If he cleaned the defensive glass, he was leading the Kentucky fast break. Once while running the floor, he turned one sloppy transition pass into a bucket for a teammate. Against South Carolina’s zone defense, he picked it apart from the middle with a finesse UK fans had not seen in 2018.
We’ve seen all of Vanderbilt’s teammates do all of those things to become a 14-win team, but as the final score indicated, putting a consistent product on the floor is a problem for this team. Vando can solve that problem by picking up the slack.
Kentucky’s newest player finished his first game with 6 points (2-5 FG), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, 2 turnovers and a +7, second only to Sacha Killeya-Jones.
Vanderbilt did a little bit of everything that everybody else couldn’t do tonight. The only problem is that he only did it in 14 minutes. Out of playing shape, Vanderbilt scored Kentucky’s final field goal with 6:33 to play, but Calipari could not keep the gassed athlete on the court much longer.
The UK debut of Jarred Vanderbilt ended sourly but provided plenty of promise. Is it unfair to extrapolate a debut into exceptionally high expectations? Of course; just ask Morakinyo Williams.
What makes Vanderbilt different than others is how he will help this team. He does not need to score to be an impact player. Tonight he proved he can do all of the little things to make sure Kentucky is clicking whenever they take the court.