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Is second-round pick Jarred Vanderbilt the Nuggets' power forward of the future?

Harrison Wind Avatar
June 27, 2018

Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic is not only one of the most talented offensive players in the league, he’s also one of the most unique. At 6-foot-10, Jokic profiles as a center, but in Denver, he runs the show as the Nuggets’ point guard. His 6.1 assists per game last year ranked first on the team by a wide margin (Will Barton was second with 4.1 per game), and the 9.4 potential assists Jokic averaged last season ranked third in the league among big men behind Draymond Green and Blake Griffin.

Jokic has his drawbacks too — mainly on the defensive end of the floor. Pairing him with the correct player in Denver’s front court is one of the challenges the Nuggets face when building a contender around their unique franchise player. It’s part of the reason why Denver splurged on free agent Paul Millsap last summer. Millsap’s strong defensive acumen could, in theory, instill a defensive-first culture within the Nuggets, help cover for some of Jokic’s mistakes and pair with Denver’s starting center to help bring the Nuggets’ defense back towards league average.

Millsap will turn 34 next season, and Denver will eventually need a replacement. Enter second-round pick Jarred Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt, a 6-foot-9 versatile big man, former McDonald’s High School All-American and top-20 recruit, appeared in just 14 games for Kentucky last season. The 19-year-old missed the first few months of the season after injuring his left foot during a September practice. Vanderbilt had surgery and recovered to play in 14 games. He missed the end of the season with a left ankle injury that was unrelated to his previous ailment, but it still caused him to slide down draft boards. At his introductory press conference in Denver last week, Vanderbilt was in a walking boot. The Nuggets said on draft night that his health is not a long-term issue.

When he did suit up for Kentucky, Vanderbilt was a rebounding machine. He grabbed 25.7 percent of available rebounds while on the floor — a higher mark than  No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton and any other big man taken in the draft’s first 30 picks. Vanderbilt pulled down 11 rebounds in 11 minutes against West Virginia and 15 rebounds in 27 minutes during a February matchup with Missouri.

“One of the greatest rebounders we’ve ever seen,” Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly said.

When Vanderbilt slid to the second round, the Nuggets were aggressive in trying to trade up for the big man who Denver had rated as a top-20 prospect entering the college season. The Nuggets gave up the No. 43 pick and a 2019 second-rounder to move up two spots and nab Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt is also a skilled and instinctual shot-blocker. He’s a springy NBA-level athlete, gifted second-jumper and gets off the floor quick. He’s long enough to contest shots from any angle when defending 1-on-1 and is agile enough to come over from the weak side and deter shots at the rim.

What stands out about Vanderbilt and his defensive upside is his motor. Vanderbilt is constantly moving and always in a stance on defense. He’s a high-effort big with active feet and is mobile enough to get out to the perimeter to contest shots. Vanderbilt can also stay with some smaller guards out to the three-point arc.

Vanderbilt’s a grab-and-go big too. He can push the ball in transition, run off of rebounds and has good ball handling skills for his size. He reminiscent of Lamar Odom in that respect.

“Part of my game that I feel like I didn’t get to showcase as much (at Kentucky) was my ball handling and playmaking capabilities,” said Vanderbilt. “My main role was to be the defensive guy on the team, be a rebounder, and bring that winning mentality. But I feel like I can be a very versatile guy, defend 1-5 and just bring energy to any team.”

Offensively, Vanderbilt is a face-up four with a developing back-to-the-basket game. He stayed close the hoop on offense last season, and of his 67 field goal attempts only 11 came from outside the paint. Initially, he’ll thrive around the rim as a lob threat, on the offensive glass and in transition.

But why Vanderbilt could be the power forward of the future next to Jokic in Denver is because of his defense. Alongside Jokic, the Nuggets need a versatile athlete who can guard three or four positions, switch on the perimeter, deter shots at the rim and be comfortable with a limited role in an equal-opportunity offense.

During the 2016-17 season, the Nuggets’ offensive attack thrived with Jokic operating in the front court next to Kenneth Faried. Defensively, Denver wasn’t dynamic enough, but on offense, the two worked well off one another. Faried played the dunker spot on offense under the basket and feasted on lobs, dump offs and on the offensive glass while Jokic patrolled the elbows and top of the key. Vanderbilt can one day fill that role while being a dynamic defensive player and has the ball handling ability and skill-set to fill a bigger role on offense.

Like the Nuggets’ first-round pick Michael Porter Jr., Vanderbilt was characterized on draft night by Nuggets’ brass as a “long-term play.” He likely won’t suit up at Summer League because of his injury and could see a lot of minutes in the G League this season with Denver two or three deep at both power forward and center spots.

Vanderbilt checks a lot of boxes that Denver is looking for in a long-term pairing with Jokic. He’s a plus-athlete with a high motor and defensive upside. Vanderbilt can block shots at the rim, defend out to the three-point line and is one of the best rebounders to come out of the draft in the past couple of years.

The Nuggets may have gotten the steal of the draft with Porter at 14. Vanderbilt may not be far behind.

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