Jarred Vanderbilt is an underrated acquisition for the Minnesota Timberwolves

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 12: Jarred Vanderbilt #3 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MN - FEBRUARY 12: Jarred Vanderbilt #3 of the Minnesota Timberwolves. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

The Minnesota Timberwolves acquired seven new players this week. One of the least heralded additions may just turn about to be one of the most important.

Just prior to the trade deadline, the Minnesota Timberwolves were part of three separate trades over a two-day span.

They acquired seven players, headlined by star guard D’Angelo Russell. Next on the marquee is surely the duo of underutilized rotation players from Denver in Malik Beasley and Juan Hernangomez, and for the most part, they haven’t disappointed thus far in Minnesota.

But the third player that was brought to Minnesota in the massive, 12-player deal between the Wolves, Rockets, Hawks, and Nuggets was second-year forward Jarred Vanderbilt. While he’s only appeared in two NBA games with the Wolves so far, the acquisition could end up being one of the savvier moves that the Gersson Rosas-led front office has completed to this point.

Vanderbilt was a second-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft and only appeared in 17 games as a rookie with the Denver Nuggets, averaging only 4.1 minutes per game. So far this season, Vanderbilt played in nine games for the Nuggets and has been on the court for the Wolves twice since the trade, averaging 4.2 minutes per game so far this season.

So, why the excitement over a player that a cursory glance may suggest is a throw-in of sorts?

Vanderbilt was a highly-recruited high school player and McDonald’s All-American. He chose to go to Kentucky, where he only played in 14 games due to injury, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game in his lone season with the Wildcats.

Despite only playing 14 games in college, the Nuggets traded up to pick him with the 11th pick of the second round in 2018. Clearly, they saw something in Vanderbilt, and it’s hard to knock their track record in talent evaluation of late.

Scouting reports were clear on Vanderbilt leading into the draft: his size and athleticism is ideal for an NBA forward. The only concern defensively is his strength, but as a 19-year-old entering the draft it was easy to consider that just a minor issue. He’s still a fantastic rebounder with good instincts, and combined with his length and athleticism there isn’t much concern that he’ll be able to rebound at the pro level.

Vanderbilt’s athleticism will play on offense and in the open floor, of course, and he’s a good passer as well. But he can’t shoot, which is the only major red flag to speak of outside of the collegiate injury issues.

The intrigue here is as a potential top-flight defender and rebounder that is entirely switchable. In theory, he should be able to guard most 3s and 4s and be able to compete with many 5s and even 2s.

With his ability in transition and on the glass, that means that Vanderbilt’s floor should be as a rotational player, think someone like Jordan Bell or maybe early-career James Johnson, before he developed a 3-point jumper. There’s still some starter-level upside, although having Vanderbilt on his current contract would be a coup if he’s able to develop into a legitimate option off the bench.

This is somewhat of a “challenge trade” by Rosas and the Wolves. Basically, they’re betting that the 20-year-old Vanderbilt will outperform the 24-year-old Keita Bates-Diop, as the two forwards were essentially a one-for-one on the side of the larger deal.

Bates-Diop was picked seven spots after Vanderbilt, and he’s ready to play now as a high-floor player who is good at many things but great at basically none. Vanderbilt doesn’t need to be ready now for the Wolves, and will probably get a shot to crack the rotation next year for a Wolves team that will try and push into the playoff picture but isn’t already a contender, which is why the Nuggets were willing to make this swap.

In three games with the Iowa Wolves of the G League, Vanderbilt has averaged 14 points and 12.7 rebounds in 25 minutes per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. Overall over the past two seasons, Vanderbilt is putting up 12.7 points and nine rebounds per game in 20 G League contests — solid numbers, to be sure.

The ceiling for Vanderbilt is much higher than Bates-Diop, and it was a savvy ask by the Wolves to try and capitalize on that upside as the Nuggets chase a championship and Minnesota is still in talent-acquisition mode.