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Season Review: Jarred Vanderbilt

Despite his inspired defensive effort and consistent spot in the starting lineup, Jarred Vanderbilt’s many limitations took a toll on his overall value to the Lakers.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

We all know the narrative by now — on February 8, the day before the trade deadline, the Lakers were five games below .500 and in the Western Conference’s 13th place. Then, just after noon Pacific time, the team landed D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, and Jarred Vanderbilt.

Although Vando was almost certainly seen as the throw-in of the deal, following a former All-Star and a credible “laser,” he has a colorable case of being the most important piece the Lakers got for Russell Westbrook, a first round pick, and two more minimum-salaried players.

How Was His Season?

Vando’s impact on the Lakers was as palpable as it was immediate. Able to deploy his length and agility against switchy perimeter scorers, Vando helped the Lakers turn a balky defense into the best one in the NBA.

In particular, a standout performance matched up against Brandon Ingram and the Pelicans showed just how valuable Vanderbilt could be in the right circumstances.

Vanderbilt kept Ingram from getting comfortable, as the Lakers easily handled a formidable foe who, at the time, remained in the same range of the Western Conference playoff picture. Then, that proof of concept blossomed into a full-blown focus of the Lakers’ defense, as Vanderbilt started in every subsequent regular season game and all but two of their postseason contests.

As the least notable name in the Lakers’ blockbuster deal, Vanderbilt’s season as a Laker was an undeniable success, making a name for himself as the premier perimeter stopper on the NBA’s best defensive team. According to the B-Ball Index, Vanderbilt generated steals, deflections, and rebounds at a better clip than at least 85% of “Wing Stoppers,” serving as evidence of being a creator of chaos on defense.

However, Vanderbilt’s detrimental impact on the other end of the floor sometimes swallowed up his defensive benefit. As a near-total non-shooter, defenses would often ignore Vanderbilt, forcing the Lakers to play 4-on-5 whenever he was in the game. At 30% on triples with L.A., Vanderbilt ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of raw percentage, a mark that looks even worse when accounting for his wide-open shot quality. To put a finer point on Vando’s shooting woes, the B-Ball Index has Vanderbilt taking cleaner threes than 98% of other players offensively categorized as “Roll + Cut Bigs,” while making few enough to give him a shot making score in the 17th percentile of those same players.

His inability to finish consistently at the basket made matters worse. Vando shot just 62% at the rim, holding him to an 18th percentile performance amongst bigs according to Cleaning the Glass. That meant that even clever cuts into open space couldn’t mitigate Vanderbilt’s spacing deficiencies, because the other team could ignore him almost anywhere, only closing the gap if he caught the ball directly beneath the basket.

His defense too wasn’t without its issues. Vanderbilt, a relatively ground-bound 6’8”, 214 pound athlete often struggled to combat the size and strength of opposing 4s and 5s. In particular, guys like Karl-Anthony Towns and Aaron Gordon outmuscled Vando in the paint, undermining his defensive value and making him a total liability to have on the floor. He also had a hard time staying attached to scorers who did most of their damage coming off of screens and away from the ball. For example, while Vando did a solid job limiting Ja Morant’s on-ball downhill force, he struggled to slow Steph Curry and Jamal Murray’s off-ball attacks — as each of those scorers ended up being handled better by Dennis Schroder, Austin Reaves, and even Lonnie Walker IV.

Darvin Ham’s over-reliance on Vando’s services at the expense of other rotation players better suited to square-off against opposing bigs cost the team in the final quarter of the regular season, even if it may not have changed their ultimate destiny this season. At worst, Ham’s resolute dedication to Vanderbilt in any and all circumstances made the pair look more like late-stage Frank Vogel and Avery Bradley than necessary.

Since Vanderbilt could only be a boon to the Lakers’ defense against particular kinds of opponents, his impact data suggests that he was one of the worst performers on the team. The Lakers were 14 points per 100 possessions worse with Vanderbilt on the floor than when he sat, the worst of any rotation player not named Malik Beasley. The Lakers often needed Vanderbilt to bite off more than he could chew, guarding the league’s fastest and strongest players while also bogging down their defense, sometimes only because they lacked a more reliable alternative to turn to.

Therefore, Vanderbilt’s plus-minus probably undersells his overall impact, but it does highlight the fact that at this stage in his career, he’s a specialist who does more harm than good when stretched beyond his comfort zone.

Should the Lakers Bring Him Back?

This offseason, as long as they do so before the end of June, the Lakers are free to waive Jarred Vanderbilt and pay him only $300,000 of his contract. However, Vando’s imperfect play is somewhat mitigated by the low price-tag facing the Lakers if they do decide to keep him. For just $4.5 million, the Lakers can retain a highly useful player in certain circumstances, even if those situations are more limited than his deployment on the team so far. As a value proposition alone, Vanderbilt is worth keeping around.

Further, at just 24 years old, he’s younger than both Austin Reaves and Rui Hachimura, meaning there’s a chance he is capable of refining his jumper into something workable, even given his genuinely busted form. If that doesn’t happen, though, Vando is a nice tool to keep in the shed, even if only for certain types of projects.

Will He Return?

The Lakers will almost certainly guarantee Vanderbilt’s contract, regardless of whether they intend to deal him. Still, his contract is basically twice the veteran’s minimum and too small to be a significant chunk of a major deal, so there probably aren’t many scenarios where the Lakers have to send him out in return for a star — if they even decide to go that route.

Nonetheless, with trade rumors swirling and the June 22 NBA Draft swiftly approaching followed by free agency at the beginning of July, whether Vando’s career continues as a Laker will be determined soon.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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