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Film Room: How the Lakers are extracting offense out of Jarred Vanderbilt

Despite his glaring scoring limitations, the Lakers are adjusting to keep Jarred Vanderbilt involved and on the floor.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Since Jarred Vanderbilt returned to action at the start of December, there’s been an ongoing chess match between the Lakers and their opponent centered specifically around him.

The game within the game essentially boils down to the Lakers needing the defensive and sheer havoc-inducing ability that Vanderbilt provides, but at the same time, not giving up too much on the other end with him on the floor given his clear offensive limitations.

This paradoxical challenge isn’t new for the Lakers or Vanderbilt. Each playoff opponent Los Angeles faced last year similarly attempted to exploit the 24-year-old’s weakness by aggressively playing off of him in the half-court. That trend has not only continued this season, but it has gotten worse. Take this play below for example:

As Austin Reaves and Anthony Davis attempt to run this spread pick and roll at the center of the court, one can not help but notice Kevin Durant on this play. With Vanderbilt stashed in the corner and away from the action, Durant can comfortably sag off to offer paint help on a potential Davis roll that never even transpires given the congestion in the key.

Like other defenders who have drawn the Vanderbilt matchup this season, Durant can do this because there is little downside when he’s utilized as a floor-spacer. This is the case because Vanderbilt is not a floor-spacer (like at all).

On the season, Vanderbilt is averaging less than one 3-point attempt per game and has yet to make a single non-garbage time trey (0/13) in 292 minutes. The combination of low frequency and non-existent efficiency is why the 6’8” livewire can easily be turned into an ancient gargoyle that is stooped away if used in this way.

Fortunately, the Lakers’ coaching staff have made simple alterations in recent games to bring the statue back to life.

One of the most noticeable changes the team has made has come by not pushing Vanderbilt further into the shadows but instead bringing him directly into the light of the team’s playcalling.

For example, the Lakers have begun to deploy Vanderbilt as a screener which accomplishes two things:

1) it naturally creates more spacing around the ball-handler with one less non-shooter on the perimeter the defense can ignore, and 2) it unlocks his most polished offensive skill — his passing.

Despite being a non-scoring threat as seen in his minuscule 9.1% usage rate and abysmal 35.4% eFG% (1st percentile among bigs this season), Vanderbilt continues to flash an impressive passing feel. This is most readily seen in possessions where the defense allows him to slip post-pick as Vanderbilt is put in a position to find the gaps, which he can thanks to his quick decision-making out of the short roll.

While not the easiest tool to leverage on a team with multiple on-ball players, it does represent a stitch of utility the Lakers can at least tap into.

As seen in his rolling, the biggest point of emphasis in Vanderbilt’s change in utilization is the deliberate effort to get him back on the move. A general rule of thumb when tracking Vanderbilt’s effectiveness is that the more stagnant, the less useful. And this is key to understanding how and why these alterations have extracted value.

Instead of sitting idly in a corner when his teammates are on the ball, the rangy big has attacked the space allotted by the defense by making timely and deliberate cuts.

On this play, Vanderbilt begins in the corner as the Lakers try to exploit the mismatch Anthony Davis has in the post. With the Clippers working hard to deny the entry pass by fronting and with weakside help drifting over, Vanderbilt creates the opening the team needs.

His flash cut and corresponding dump-off to Davis is a perfect example of using the defense’s gameplan against them while also helping execute his own team’s desired look.

In this next possession, the Clippers — like many teams — put their center on Vanderbilt to create defensive flexibility on the perimeter and still have backline protection given the big can drop down from Vanderbilt at any time.

Instead of letting the defense set the rules of engagement by staying put, Vanderbilt first looks to set a decoy flare screen for D’Angelo Russell and then hits the afterburners on his cut. And given the speed advantage Vanderbilt has over opposing centers, the Clippers’ low man, Russell Westbrook, has to help on the drive which sets the stage for another excellent interior pass.

Beyond directly having a hand in creating looks for his teammates, Vanderbilt’s cuts have also helped carve out room without needing to touch the ball.

Due to the defense often turning their back on him while on the floor, Vanderbilt’s pin-balling around the floor forces the opposition to reengage with him and, in turn, puts defenders in rotation.

When players are in rotation, mistakes happen, assignments are missed, and shooters are left open.

Although it sounds oxymoronic, this type of gameplan manipulation and aggressiveness are good examples of how non-shooters can still have a positive impact on spacing — the Lakers are shooting 40.1% from three in Vanderbilt’s minutes — and the offense as a whole.

Despite still rounding back into shape after an early season injury, Vanderbilt’s impact has shown why he’s worth figuring out how to adjust around.

On the year, the Lakers have been 4.5 points better with Vanderbilt on the floor compared to off. As expected, the defense has been bolstered by his versatility during these minutes (110.7 defRTG) but it’s worth noting the offense is surprisingly also slightly up when Vanderbilt has been on.

Like any form of lineup data, context is important. The players around Vanderbilt likely have played a bigger role in this from the offensive standpoint, but it is also indicative of how even the slightest of adjustments can help illuminate a black hole.

Screening and cutting will only go so far, however. At some point, Vanderbilt will need to prove to be more of a scoring threat to keep defenses honest and maintain his spot in the rotation come playoff time.

Until that happens, defenses will continue to play off him and crowd the paint. The downside and challenges are still apparent as the Lakers are shooting only 62.3% at the rim during Vanderbilt’s minutes and 70.5% when he’s on the bench, according to Cleaning the Glass.

While on the surface Vanderbilt may still look like every bit of the liability his data says he is, watching a little closer reveals a player and team working hard to maximize every last drop of ability out of the desert that is his offensive repertoire. Only time will tell if the juice is worth the squeeze.

You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.

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