Versatile combo forwards with the size to defend 1-4 are all the rage nowadays. These are players equally capable of defending the league’s top end wing scorers and switching onto the premier guards the NBA has to offer when called upon. It’s not an easy or enviable task, but in order to compete at the highest levels, finding individuals able to fill this role is necessary.
The Knicks are desperately in need of such players. The closest thing the Knicks have is Lance Thomas, which is to say there’s nobody on the roster with the requisite talent or ability to carry out such duties effectively. Considering the defensive advantages to be had with pairing such a player alongside Kristaps Porzingis at the 5, it’s something Scott Perry and Steve Mills must address sooner, rather than later, as they continue to re-shape the roster.
Finding one isn’t easy, though. As mentioned above, this type of player is en vogue and highly coveted by teams around the league. Their versatility affords coaches tremendous lineup flexibility; a characteristic of increasing importance in today’s NBA.
Jarred Vanderbilt, due to a variety of reasons, may be such an option available to the Knicks in the second round.
Vanderbilt is a highly intriguing prospect out of the University of Kentucky. A 5-star recruit out of high school, repeated injuries — 3 to be exact — to his left foot forced him to miss large chunks of time during his senior year of high school and limited him to just 14 games in his lone season with the Wildcats. Concerns over that foot have seen his stock drop into the second round.
Injuries aren’t the only concerns about Vanderbilt moving forward, though. As perimeter shooting has become a virtual necessity for all positions, his complete inability to score outside of the paint is problematic.
Vanderbilt only attempted one shot — which he missed — from beyond the arc and shot 25% from mid-range. He did shoot 63.2% from the free throw line, albeit on just 38 attempts. Going back to his high school career doesn’t paint a rosier picture either. Per DraftExpress he connected on 20.9% on just 67 total attempts from three and shot 43.8% from the free throw line on 249 attempts.
As a result, his skills and utility in the halfcourt are very limited. Vanderbilt flashes potential as a finisher in pick-and-roll and dribble hand offs.
He’s also a tremendous force on the offensive glass (23.1 ORB%), an active off-ball cutter, which at least forces teams to be slightly aware of him, and shows some flashes of playmaking ability. That’s about it, though.
So why is an injury prone, non-shooter, with limited offensive skills a prospect worth investing in for the Knicks?
For one, he brings qualities to the table they sorely lack. Vanderbilt is an excellent defensive rebounder (27.9 DRB%) and at 6’9”, he’s a slithery athlete with great quickness and speed for his size which makes him dangerous in the open floor, an eternal weakness for the Knicks.
When he’s able to get out into transition he really comes alive. Vanderbilt is excellent at filling the wing and finishing in the open court.
What really sets him apart, though, is his ability to grab a defensive rebound and immediately lead a fast break himself.
That type of grab-and-go ability is extremely unique. It’s difficult not to get visions of Lamar Odom when you see that level of talent...and he’s a lefty to boot.
As nice as the transition ability is, it’s his defensive potential that should be of most interest to the Knicks. Vanderbilt’s aggression, size, length and agility give him the potential to be the Swiss Army knife-type defender they so desperately need on the wing.
Vanderbilt excels at using his good defensive instincts to key transition opportunities for his team. His 7’1” wingspan allows him to overplay passing lanes to hunt for steals, which he can turn into easy offense.
Here he flashes his ability as a pick-and-roll defender.
Vanderbilt drops on the drive to effectively cut off the pocket pass to the roll man while also cutting off any chance for the guard to get to the rim, forcing him into an ill-advised lob pass instead. Vanderbilt is able to corral the loose ball and immediately gets Kentucky out into the open floor, although they fail to capitalize on this occasion.
He’s able to effectively execute a number of pick-and-roll coverages, sometimes even multiple looks in the same possession.
On the initial pick-and-roll Vanderbilt stays at the free throw line, aware that Collin Sexton, a likely lottery pick, isn’t a huge threat to pull up off the dribble. He cuts the drive off, forcing him to hit the screener who has popped out for a jumper, but Vanderbilt recovers too quick for him to get off an open look.
Sexton gets the ball back and runs another pick-and-roll which this Vanderbilt chooses to switch on this time. Likely dissuaded by Vanderbilt’s lateral speed making him a tough blow by for any guard, Sexton chooses not to attack him and elects to take a contested 3.
Multiple effort possessions like this aren’t rare for Vanderbilt. It is a part of his game that sets him apart from many young players.
On this possession he switches onto Jevon Carter, uses his wingspan to prevent eliminate the passing angle on a baseline cut, and tags the roll man on a pick-and-roll before running Carter off the three point line. To cap it off Vanderbilt fights for the defensive rebound and immediately looks to push.
This relentless aggression on defense is valuable, but it can also gets him into trouble. He often gets himself out of position when looking for steals, which can lead to open shots for the opposition.
In the second clip he makes a great effort to recover, but he’s out of control and a simple pump fake on the close-out takes him out of the play. Vanderbilt gets lucky that he isn’t punished for the transgression, but the NBA won’t be as forgiving.
Again, it’s important to note how small the sample size is for Vanderbilt. In the 14 games he played, he averaged just 17 minutes per game and played 238 minutes total. Extrapolating and projecting forward from that is tough.
Vanderbilt is rough around the edges. He lacks polish as a halfcourt ball handler and playmaker, is a total non-shooter, can be overpowered by stronger bigs and can get caught out of position on defense.
By the same token he’s a dynamite grab-and-go player, can finish at the rim effectively, is excellent on the glass and is an extremely versatile defender capable of switching 1-4, even potentially 1-5 when teams go small. All of that is valuable, exceedingly so to the Knicks who lack depth and versatility on the wing.
Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee were routinely punished at small forward last season. If teams went small the Knicks’ options at the 4 — Thomas, Michael Beasley, Doug McDermott or Isaiah Hicks (lol) — if they wanted to match up were all highly flawed.
Vanderbilt is flawed in numerous ways too. If he wasn’t a player with his size, skills and athleticism wouldn’t even be an option so late in the draft. He won’t be the answer to all that ails the Knicks next season, but at just 19 years old he certainly has the potential to be part of the solution long-term.