Friday night was a fun night in the NBA. The Houston Rockets nearly imploded late against the Toronto Raptors and the Utah Jazz staved off a furious Minnesota Timberwolves’ comeback. Luka Doncic scored 32 points and a few other games went down to the wire. So you probably missed, for my money’s worth, the most exciting event of the night. It was 44 minutes into a Denver Nuggets’ blowout over the lowly Phoenix Suns when rookie Jarred Vanderbilt made his NBA debut.
A second-round pick out of Kentucky by Denver, the 6-foot-9 forward’s career had been marred by injuries. He has had three separate left foot injuries, one previously ending his season at Kentucky, forcing him to miss all but 14 games, per Sports Reference. It caused him to miss the first 46 games of his NBA career.
Injuries put aside, Vanderbilt was an attractive NBA prospect. Despite his complete lack of any jump shot or decent touch, Vanderbilt looked like a potential ideal modern small-ball five man. He is a rare athlete for a man as big as him: a fluid, explosive, and coordinated runner. His motor was always running at maximum capacity. He used that motor to dominate the glass and wreak havoc on defense.
Combined with his freakish athleticism, Vanderbilt had a high basketball IQ. He flashed rare passing ability for a player of his stature.
All of these attractive traits were not enough to have Vanderbilt’s name be one of the first 30 called on draft night, as he dropped to pick 41, where the Orlando Magic reportedly traded him to the Nuggets. This slide on draft night was a blessing in disguise for Vanderbilt, as there may not be a better fit for him than in the Mile High City.
With the second-best record in the Western Conference and the fourth-best in the NBA, per NBA.com, the Denver Nuggets have established themselves as one of the best teams in the league. Led by their pudgy superstar Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ potent offense and surprising defensive improvement have made them a tough outing nightly. Their bench also may be the deepest in the league even with Vanderbilt, Isaiah Thomas and Michael Porter Jr. all injured.
On Friday night, Vanderbilt only logged three minutes of garbage time play in a blowout over the Suns. In his brief debut, though, he flashed quite a bit of potential and made multiple impressive plays. Vanderbilt flashed his passing talent, zipping this bounce pass to Malik Beasley on the break. His ability to grab and go adds value to his already elite rebounding ability. The pass wasn’t perfect but the intuition to make this pass in the first place is impressive.
His next pass may be more impressive than the last one. Driving into the paint, he flicks this pass on the move to the corner shooter. The body control, timing and touch required to make this pass is advanced. Making these type of plays consistently should vault Vanderbilt into the Denver Nuggets’ rotation.
This drive looks fluid and effortless, as Vanderbilt strides to the rim and draws the foul. He would score his first NBA point at the foul line.
Vanderbilt’s stat line from his NBA debut looked like this: one point, three rebounds, one assist, one turnover, and one steal, per ESPN. It was nothing earth shattering but he looked the part of a valuable NBA player. We will need to see more of Vanderbilt in higher leverage minutes to make a real decision on him but this start was promising.
He is a smart player who knows how to play the game and always gives 100% effort. That in itself is a valuable player. Vanderbilt adds to Denver’s already loaded second unit, consisting of Monte Morris, Malik Beasley, Juancho Hernangomez, Torrey Craig, and Miles Plumlee. A return of Thomas or Porter Jr. would create the deepest team in the NBA by a mile.
Vanderbilt’s most intriguing potential with the Denver Nuggets is his fit with Nikola Jokic. He is a perfect foil to the generally unathletic Jokic. His defensive tools, motor and IQ make him a potential perfect frontcourt partner moving for Jokic. Paul Millsap is not getting any younger and is becoming actively harmful on offense. If Vanderbilt could provide similar defense and add passing and rebounding value, he could usurp Millsap’s role at some point this or next season.
Having a player like Vanderbilt on the roster is a massive luxury for Denver. If he never develops or cannot shake his injury concerns, then not much has been lost. But if he can develop into a truly good NBA player, Vanderbilt could be a key addition to the best young core in the NBA. It’s impossible to determine anything after a few minutes of action. But Vanderbilt’s performance doesn’t look like fool’s gold to me.
Assuming he can stay healthy, the Denver Nuggets have unearthed another golden nugget. A wholly promising piece, Jarred Vanderbilt could inch Denver closer to their first NBA championship.