Last month, when Jarred Vanderbilt checked into the game for the first time in his NBA career, the entire Denver Nuggets bench rose to their feet for the 3 minutes and 53 seconds of garbage time that he was awarded by head coach Michael Malone. The team had already secured the lead so Vanderbilt’s debut was just the cherry on top of what turned out to be a great night. Over the course of that 3:53 stretch, Vanderbilt grabbed a steal, three rebounds, a point, and a highlight-worthy full-court bounce pass that lifted the crowd into a frenzy.
It was a great debut and one that left Nuggets fans feeling hopeful.
His follow up performance came this Wednesday and, while it lacked the excitement and highlights of his garbage time debut, it provided an even better glimpse into what makes him a high-upside prospect for the Nuggets going forward.
Quick reaction speed
The first thing that stands out about Vanderbilt on defense is his quick reaction speed. In the clip below, he starts off by doing a great job of sticking with the ball and taking a great angle to cut off the drive to the rim. After he cuts off the attack, he gets his hands high into the passing lane to take away the ball-handler’s view of the court. A pass still sneaks through his outstretched arms but watch how quickly he recovers to contest the layup.
Those quick recoveries matter. For most bigs in the NBA, that pass results in an uncontested layup, even if the defender is committed to giving full effort. Vanderbilt is lighter on his feet that most players his size and has great length which helps make shooters and cutters rush their shot, reducing their touch around the basket.
The Crash Brothers
The Denver Nuggets have a lot of finesse players and a few athletes but they only have two players who up the energy and intensity level on the defensive end of the floor: Torrey Craig and Jarred Vanderbilt. Mason Plumlee is the next closest and he has moments where he can disrupt what opponents are trying to do. Paul Millsap is a terrific defender and is always in the right spot, but neither of those guys can create chaos and speed up the tempo like the “crash brothers.”
One key to Denver’s 3rd quarter run against the Brooklyn Nets was that the lineup featuring Craig and Vanderbilt was able to change the tempo of the game and force the Nets out of their rhythm. Watch as Craig provides full court pressure on D’Angelo Russell. That pressure ultimately led to the 1-5 pick-and-roll (PnR) taking place well above the three-point line which helped run Russell out of range to turn the corner and shoot. It also allowed Vanderbilt to show off his most impressive defensive skill; showing on the ball and recovering fast enough to still contest the rolling big man.
The angle that Vanderbilt takes on the recovery is absolutely perfect. Most bigs, even the ones with several years of experience, tend to take a direct line toward the roller which results in a contest from the side or from behind. Vanderbilt sprints right to the arc of the restricted area, forcing Jarrett Allen to chose between putting the ball on the floor or shooting a floater. Both of those are solid options for the defense. Allen is caught off guard and picks up the turnover.
Here is a great example of a good defensive angle and a bad defensive angle in the same play. Joe Harris comes off of a screen and is met by Vanderbilt who does a great job sitting on his right shoulder, walling off his lane to the basket. Juancho Hernangomez gets caught trailing Harris a bit too far over the top in anticipation of a dribble handoff in the left corner. That handoff would require Juancho to switch so he appears to be positioning himself for that switch. Unfortunately, he’s too late recognizing the angle that Harris took toward the basket and gives up an excellent trap opportunity.
The contrast between Vanderbilt and Juancho Hernangomez can be stark. Athletically, Juancho has tools in his belt but quick foot speed isn’t one of them. Defensive anticipation has also been one of his weaknesses. Vanderbilt excels with both so he is still able to force Harris into a difficult spin move.
Sticking with guards
That quick reaction speed also aids in containing and contesting guards on the perimeter. Here, Vanderbilt gets switched onto a red-hot Russell who had hit three consecutive three-pointers before Denver’s second unit checked into the game. Vanderbilt’s ability to contain the drive is impressive enough but it’s his closeout speed on the pull-up that is especially interesting. Russell had a green light but hesitated because of how quickly Vanderbilt got his hand up and was ready to contest.
Hands in every passing and driving lane
On Locked on Nuggets, I’ve talked before about Jokic’s ability to bait guards into dropoff passes by showing early on drives and making it look like he’s fully committed to the ball before anticipating the dropoff and grabbing the steal. In the clip below, Vanderbilt does a great job of the exact opposite. He stays home on Allen taking away the dropoff but is quick enough and locked in enough to get his hands in the driving lane forcing Russell to double clutch his driving layup. That double clutch was all Craig needed to recover and block the shot.
I’m telling you, it’s the crash brothers.
This play was impressive in real time but even more impressive once I slowed the video down. Vanderbilt provides a cushion to Allen on the left elbow and either anticipates the ensuing pass to the cutting Harris or just reacts with perfect timing as Allen goes into his passing motion. I’m not sure which would be more impressive. Either way, the slowed down version shows you just how well Vanderbilt timed the pass and how his activity affected the play.
Offensively he has looked very raw, perhaps more than anticipated given his reputation as a point-forward. His handle is impressive but a bit wild and his touch around the rim appears to be rugged at best. In the two G-league games that he played heavy minutes, his activity level was up and down, likely due to fatigue and rust. It could also be that he plays so hard that he’s more of a player who can be counted on for short but high-energy stints in his first couple of seasons. Time will tell.
But he already possesses a few skills and instincts that are hard to teach and has an excellent foundation to become an elite defender and rebounder. He also brings a skill set and frenetic style of play that the team is missing, which makes the idea of him all the more valuable. It’ll be hard for him to break into the rotation this season but he may provide enough glimpses of his potential to force his way into the lineup as early as next season.
Either way, there’s enough to digest in his 12 minutes of play to see the seeds for a very solid addition to this young Nuggets roster.