In just 6 games and 18 minutes of playing time, the young rookie forward has made quite an impact on Nuggets Nation.
Not Michael Porter Jr. and his tantalizing star potential though, but the rebounding energy and skill level of Jarred Vanderbilt.
The 41st overall pick of the 2018 NBA Draft, Vanderbilt was selected by the Denver Nuggets with the knowledge that his foot injury might prevent him from seeing the floor during his rookie season. Combine that with the seemingly endless bodies at the power forward position in Denver, and it seemed like a long shot to be calling for Vanderbilt to receive playing time so soon.
And yet, the Nuggets have a need for his services in the rotation right now.
Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap, and Mason Plumlee have been the foundational players at Denver’s two big man positions for most of the year. Trey Lyles served as the fourth member of that quartet for awhile, but his shooting and defense hurt Denver’s bench defense before he injured his left hamstring the day the Nuggets returned to practice after the All-Star break. Lyles ranks 78th out of 94 ranked power forwards in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus metric, a microcosm of the minimal impact he has had this season.
And yet, since Lyles started sitting out six games ago, neither of his replacements — Juancho Hernangomez nor Torrey Craig — have suitably filled in at the backup power forward position. Hernangomez has yet to make a shot since Lyles went down, and his defense has proven disappointing during that time as well. Since January 1st, Juancho is averaging just 2.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in 13.4 minutes per game, shooting just 20.5% from beyond the arc. Craig has been slightly better, but not much so, during his minutes. In the past six games since Lyles went down, Craig has played just 37 total minutes, shooting 36% from the field and 20% from 3. The defense is statistically better with Craig out there in those situations, but the eye test shows that Craig is an individually impactful defender who struggles to impact the other end of the floor at all.
In the end, none of those guys are providing positive impact right now, Lyles wasn’t great when he was healthy. Neither Juancho nor Craig have sufficiently filled their roles in his stead. Tyler Lydon is currently optioned to the G-League. Michael Porter Jr. is probably out for the season.
That leaves Vanderbilt as the only differing option, and yet, he might be the best option at this point.
Simple defense and size
The Nuggets need a player at power forward, especially if they continue to play Isaiah Thomas and Monte Morris together, that can make the simple plays defensively. While he is certainly raw, Vanderbilt’s defensive instincts in his limited minutes have shown through, and he knows where to be in most situations.
Opposing teams will run this same action, running Denver’s small guards off of screens, to try and give their shooters space to let perimeter shots fly. Not only does Vanderbilt display the recognition to limit the air space of Troy Daniels (career 40.3% three-point shooter) but he also has the defensive ability to switch the screen and guard whoever’s in front of him. Vanderbilt also has two steals and a block in his 18 minutes, all of which were a result of solid defensive positioning and effort level.
In just 18 minutes so far, Vanderbilt has grabbed 12 rebounds, aided by an excellent performance versus the Brooklyn Nets in which he accumulated seven rebounds in eight minutes. The sample size is too small to draw statistical comparisons to over NBA players, but Vanderbilt simply looks like Kenneth Faried out there. The former Nugget and current Houston Rockets big man used his ample energy and fire to grab rebounds in bunches on the offensive end of the floor, and Vanderbilt looks to be a similar talent on that end. At 6’9 with a wiry frame, it’s tough for many backup forwards to box out Vanderbilt, and it’s impossible for guards to out jump him.
Flashes of special passing talent
How many 19-year-old power forwards can execute this pass in transition?
This wasn’t just a fluke pass either. In high school, Vanderbilt operated for much of his senior season as a point forward, handling the ball, making passes out of double teams and on the move, and so on.
Tyler Lydon is in the wrong spot on the floor in the above play. He should be all the way in the corner waiting for Vanderbilt to recognize the double team and hit him. Even still, Vanderbilt makes a quick read, moves the ball precisely, and sets up his teammate well.
The amount of time any bench power forward would spend on the floor remains very low. In Denver’s current rotation, the bench forward is only expected to play six to eight minutes in each half, entering at the very end of the first/third quarter and exiting in the middle of the second/fourth quarter. This period of time coincides mostly with Denver’s bench unit, likely featuring Thomas, Morris, Plumlee, and Malik Beasley. Playing small with Torrey Craig hasn’t worked, and for whatever reason, Juancho hasn’t worked either.
My belief is that the Nuggets will return to Trey Lyles when he gets healthy and trust that his size/athleticism/shooting potential will help Denver’s bench unit, but until that point, why not give Jarred Vanderbilt a try? The current options have yet to make an impact in a positive way, but Vanderbilt is in a great position to provide the Nuggets with a burst of energy to start the second and fourth quarters, something they need desperately.
A 6’9 athlete with a willingness to defend, rebound, and be a playmaker for others? Sign me up.