Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Jarred Vanderbilt.
It didn’t take long for Jarred Vanderbilt to make his impact and value felt as soon as he arrived on the Lakers last season. As part of the return from the Russell Westbrook trade, Vanderbilt automatically became the team’s second-best defender and was instantly inserted into the starting lineup for the purple and gold. The 24-year-old played an instrumental role in the Lakers’ incredible late turnaround last regular season.
What makes Vanderbilt such a unique player is that his skillset isn’t easy to find for someone of his current contract value. He’s a 6’8 forward who possesses defensive flexibility and plays with a certain motor, grit and focus that stands out on the court. The University of Kentucky product helps the team win in different ways.
Vanderbilt’s a very good rebounder, roller and connector on a team built around Anthony Davis and LeBron James. He’s the type of player who won’t mind doing the dirty work and sometimes can even win a regular season game or two with his sheer effort and determination alone.
His ability to create defensive stops, second chance opportunities, get out in transition, cut and roll to the basket to score are some of the valuable ways he contributes to winning basketball.
Whenever I think of Vanderbilt’s time in Los Angeles so far, I can’t help but always remember arguably his best game as a Laker — when he spearheaded a 27-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks last February, the same game he finished with an efficient double-double of 15 points and 17 rebounds:
VAAANDOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO— Nicole Ganglani (@nicoleganglani) September 19, 2023
this will always be my favorite game of his pic.twitter.com/HryF8gICW9
There’s no doubt that Vando’s value is integral to the Lakers’ success this season but the challenge for him is to stay valuable on the court. We learned from last season’s playoff run that Vanderbilt’s downside, specifically his limitations offensively, can impact his presence on the court just as much as his upside. This started with Vanderbilt’s weakness as a 3-point shooter, which turned out to be a growing liability throughout the playoffs that led to him being benched in the biggest game of the season.
Now, the biggest question for Vanderbilt heading into the season is whether or not his 3-point shooting will continue to be a liability or not. Has the 24-year-old addressed his weakness enough for him to finally be considered a quality 3-and-D role player? The Lakers and Vanderbilt should hope so because this is what’s going to raise their ceiling this season.
What is his best-case scenario?
The best-case scenario for Vanderbilt is if everything he said he worked on during the summer — specifically his shooting, finishing at the rim, ball handling and bulking up — translates to his performance on the court. Vanderbilt also cited that he emphasized working on his focus, strength and conditioning when it comes to chasing smaller guards defensively as well as screen navigation and switching out on defenders.
The most ideal scenario for Vanderbilt is to keep up his status as the team’s second-best defender while no longer getting played off the court due to his offensive limitations. The moment he shows progress in this regard is if he starts knocking down those corner 3-point shot attempts that the opponents dare him to take most of the time.
In last year’s playoff run, 41% of Vanderbilt’s shots were attempted from the corners as he only converted 24% of those, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s part of the reason why he saw a decrease in his minutes as the postseason went on, causing the Lakers to miss his defensive presence on the court.
In the regular season, Vando registered as a 30.3% three-point shooter and while that’s not really encouraging at all either, he still finds a way to score inside the paint, from the free-throw line and in transition. But how much better would he be if he develops into a respectable shooter? If he does, not only is he no longer going to be a liability but he could also be an x-factor for the Lakers moving forward.
It would also be nice if Vando is put in the best position to succeed offensively instead of consistently just standing on the corner, waiting for someone to pass him the ball. The thought of running plays for him that utilize his strength as a cutter or a roller sounds intriguing. Or perhaps encouraging him to attempt more floaters derived from the pick-and-roll and maybe even utilizing him as a short roll passer to enable his passing skills.
Aside from improving offensively, another best-case scenario for Vanderbilt is if he further develops defensively, particularly when it comes to battling stronger and more physical players. As commendable of a defender Vanderbilt is, there are times when he gets played off the court because he can’t keep up with more athletic and imposing forwards as seen in the series against the Denver Nuggets. That’s probably the reason why he worked on building strength in the offseason.
If the incoming eighth-year forward shows improvements both offensively and defensively, then he might just be the best 3-and-D player for the Lakers this season.
What is his worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario for Vanderbilt is if his value only lasts in the regular season instead of the playoffs. If he doesn’t show signs of improvement in his game and makes the investment that the Lakers put in him this summer look bad.
If Vanderbilt continues to be more of a liability than asset on the court, his minutes will dwindle down as well now that there are other quality options head coach Darvin Ham can go with at the forward spot. Remember, he’s going up against Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish and even Rui Hachimura (if the Lakers decide to play big) for those minutes in the small forward position.
It also won’t be a surprise if opposing teams continue to expose Vando as a weak link on offense now that there’s more tape that exposes his weaknesses from last season. It’ll be up to him to prove his value on the court.
If Vanderbilt stays as the same player last season (which is still quite good), it won’t be that much of a detriment for the Lakers but more so for him. His limitations could define him as a player moving forward and ultimately cost him more opportunities.
Vanderbilt can’t be traded at least until the regular season ends due to his recent contract extension but the other worst-case scenario for him is that he doesn’t meet the front office’s expectations this year which could result in him being involved in trade discussions next offseason. If Vanderbilt ends up getting traded, he’ll be on his fifth team in nine years.
What is his most likely role on the team?
There are two potential roles that are already on the table for Vando as early as opening night this season. One is a starting spot alongside D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, James and Davis, which he’s auditioning for during training camp. That’s good news for him because there’s sample data that proves that Vanderbilt fits well in this lineup.
Last season, that starting unit played a total of 167 possessions together and was a +22. They only played a total of seven games together but in those 77 minutes, they had a 123.5 offensive rating and 103.0 defensive rating, according to NBA stats.
If Vando doesn’t make it to the starting lineup then he’ll most likely be one of the first options off the bench. His unique skillset will be as important for the second unit and his familiarity with Ham’s system and philosophies gives him the upper hand compared to the new faces on the team. In fact, Vanderbilt said at media day that his familiarity with Ham’s system is a huge factor for him heading into the season because he’s more aware of how he can thrive on the team.
Regardless, the fact that Vanderbilt is considered one of the team’s best defenders and connectors automatically makes him a shoo-in for a particular role on the team. But whether or not he proves to be more of an asset than a liability in that role will be up to how he manages to stay on the floor.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @nicoleganglani