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The Jarred Vanderbilt paradox

Although the 24-year-old played a key part in helping resurrect the Lakers’ season, Jarred Vanderbilt’s role is now less clear after the team’s recent moves and comments.

Golden State Warriors v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Four Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

After joining the Lakers at the trade deadline, Jarred Vanderbilt played a key part in helping breathe life back into a flatlining season for Los Angeles.

Almost instantly slotted into the starting lineup, Vanderbilt flashed the strengths he brought to the table. At roughly 6’8” and nimble on his feet, the 24-year-old provided some much needed defensive flexibility on the perimeter — as his length and hot motor stood out on a roster that prior to the makeover, lacked both consistently.

Thanks to his physical gifts and focus, Vanderbilt swiftly became the Lakers’ Swiss Army Knife when it came to defensive matchups. Whether it was an opposing star guard or wing, Vanderbilt was entrusted to handle the toughest assignment on a nightly basis.

While limited offensively, Vanderbilt also worked hard to fill in the gaps on that end. When teams tested his jumper by sagging off, he consumed the space with timely baseline cuts to the rack. In other instances, he used the opposition's disrespect to crash the glass, often helping create second chances with his limbs routinely flying into the horde.

Vanderbilt’s ability to fit in and get his hands dirty was evident both on the floor and in terms of the data.

During the regular season, the team’s new starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Austin Reaves, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Vanderbilt were a +22.2 in the small 167 possessions they appeared together.

In many ways, the first 26 games with his new team was a showcase of Vanderbilt’s ability and utility. Unfortunately, like the rusty other side of a coin, the postseason shined a burning light on his flaws and limitations.

One of the biggest obstacles that both Vanderbilt and the Lakers had to overcome in the playoffs was how defenses ignored him on the offensive end — primarily, by turning the screws on his aforementioned shooting struggles.

Designated off the ball, the majority of Vanderbilt’s contributions in the half court has proved dependent on his activity level and the rate he made his open looks from deep. If either experiences slippage, his value plummets.

NBA: Playoffs-Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

While the Lakers were able to live with his subpar scoring within a regular season setting, the playoffs proved to be a different beast.

With aspects like scouting and game-planning proving paramount in a seven-game series, the biggest means to gaining an advantage over a team is finding and leveraging a weakness.

Vanderbilt’s shooting then was likely circled in red marker and had giant arrows pointing at it in each round the Lakers played.

Due to his poor finishing around the rim, flimsy hands out of the pick-and-roll and the immense space defenses cheated off of him, a whopping 41% (22% increase from the regular season) of the Vanderbilt’s shots in the postseason came from the corners. He made just 24% of those opportunities according to Cleaning the Glass.

While it’s not impossible for a player with offensive limitations to stay on the floor in the playoffs, it is specifically dependent that the individual be able to make up for it through their defensive impact.

In the earlier rounds, Vanderbilt showed he could offer such impact, but only to a point.

Used in several instances as the team’s point of attack defender against the likes of Ja Morant and Steph Curry, Vanderbilt emerged as a helpful nuisance and disruptor. Through his foot-speed and length, he made both guards work tremendously hard for their points. However, both players and their teams eventually adjusted.

NBA: Playoffs-Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it was Morant outpacing him with his elite burst and snaking his way downhill, or the Warriors running Curry off countless screens, Vanderbilt’s viability lessened the further each series progressed.

The Denver Nuggets also exploited the other weakness in Vanderbilt’s game — his lack of bulk.

The former second-round pick has excelled when matched up against similarly proportioned players whom operate primarily on the ball, like Brandon Ingram for example.

But where Vanderbilt has struggled is when tasked with guarding bigger wings and forwards, as was the case in the Lakers’ series against Denver. He does not possess the frame to keep stronger players off the glass, nor from getting to their spots on offense which eventually doomed L.A. in the series from a team perspective.

This combination of limitations on both ends isn't insurmountable from a projecting forward perspective, but can be if similar contextual elements remain the same in terms of the roster.

If lined up beside the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Vanderbilt must be able to shoot at a respectable enough clip to counter the natural spacing limitations that continues to be present for the star front court.

On defense, if the Lakers’ backcourt continues to skew on the smaller side, then it will be up to Vanderbilt again to attempt to hold up against stronger or faster players if his guards are unable to do so.

While this type of microanalysis is mostly a postseason dilemma, there is also the potential that the size of Vanderbilt’s role will be impacted in the regular season as well.

With Rui Hachimura signing a new 3-year, $51 million dollar deal in free-agency after his tremendous playoff run, there eventually will be a natural inclination to increase his minutes or move him into the starting lineup altogether.

Vanderbilt may also face some competition beyond Hachimura, as the Lakers also signed the likes of Taurean Prince and Cam Reddish this summer.

While both players likely won't offer as much resistance as Vanderbilt would on the defensive end, they should provide more spacing and diversity on offense. This is an important notion, as shooting could be critical if the Lakers decide to re-adopt the “two-big” lineup they previously deployed in 2020 when they won their most recent championship.

There have been recent rumblings that the team signed Jaxson Hayes with the intention of lessening the minutes Davis would have to play center, and potentially, even see Hayes start next to Davis which would enable him to slot back into his preferred power forward role.

It remains to be seen how the evolution of the roster around him impacts his short and long-term future with the team, especially given his extremely tradable contract and upcoming free-agency.

Regardless of his postseason limitations and where Vanderbilt eventually slots into the rotation this upcoming season, it is salient to reemphasize how valuable players with his grit and hustle are over the course of 82 games.

He’s going to dive for loose balls, throw his body into a crowd for a rebound like he were in the pit of a punk show, and provide an infectious “give a shit” factor that every team simply needs.

What spectrum you ultimately view Vanderbilt through as a player rests on how much you value the intangible versus the tangible. His effort level, motor and spirt, all skyrocket off of the charts. Yet, his limitations in terms of actual production, leave a lot to be desired.

Both matter in basketball, but like so much else in the NBA, the weight of each is contingent on the setting.

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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