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For good and bad, Jarred Vanderbilt has come to epitomize the 2021-22 Timberwolves

Vando is becoming a feel-good exception to the franchise’s historic failure at developing role players. 

Forward Jarred Vanderbilt, left, shown during the December 8 game against the Utah Jazz.
Forward Jarred Vanderbilt, left, shown during the December 8 game against the Utah Jazz.
Nick Wosika-USA TODAY Sports

The most emblematic player on the 2021-22 Minnesota Timberwolves is their pogo-sticking power forward Jarred Vanderbilt. When the Wolves have been successful thus far this season, it has almost always been triggered by the ability to ignite intensity with the abrupt frenzy of a dogfight, then seize purpose from the ensuing chaos. Veteran point guard Patrick Beverley is the fiery tone-setter and catalyst for this remarkable metamorphosis in what had traditionally been the franchise’s complacent, and disastrous, reliance on mediocre finesse. But Vanderbilt is the sustainer of Beverley’s flame, the lungs and the hamstrings of the operation.

Vando’s signature move is the leaping swoop out of nowhere to grab an offensive rebound and extend his team’s offensive possession after yet another errant shot. As of Wednesday morning, the Wolves were missing more field goal attempts per game, 53, than any team in the NBA. But thanks to Vando, they were also leading the league in offensive rebounds, grabbing nearly 25% more of them than they did a year ago. 

Those swoops — soaring over and between bodies gathering themselves too late to contest for the carom — stick in the memory due to the ambush factor, and the fact that Vando and his teammates have learned that his momentum upon landing can carry him into a snap pass out to the perimeter for a jump shot in rhythm, a far better option than Vando trying to take himself back toward the basket and match his dubious shooting touch against the wrath of the recently ambushed. 

Far more frequently, however, Vando isn’t soaring uncontested. The swoop may be the signature, but mid-air collisions are the prevailing medium through which much of his work is accomplished. Vando is listed at carrying 214 pounds on his 6-foot, 9-inch frame, meaning he is almost always going up for rebounds against larger, heavier foes at both ends of the court. And those are actually the drearier collisions.

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This season, the Wolves have totally revamped their defensive scheme. Instead of almost always utilizing center Karl-Anthony Towns in drop coverage, where his near-sole objective is protecting the rim against shots near the hoop, coach Chris Finch frequently has KAT trying to affect the play at the leverage point of a pick-and-roll maneuver, which can eventually involve him being drawn out to the perimeter. If the opponent counters by sending the ball-handler or the roll man hard to the basket, it becomes the responsibility of the “low man” off to the side of the pick-and-roll to skedaddle over and contest the shot. Vando is often the low man; or, in the event the low man doesn’t respond to the situation, he is often the one who hustles hard to try and rescue the defense from an uncontested layup or dunk. This can result in the kind of collisions that put both players parallel to the court with appendages akimbo. 

The Wolves’ two best and most aggressive on-ball defenders are PatBev and Josh Okogie. Both men, but PatBev especially, specialize in collapsing space, getting their upper torso against the opponent early in the action and thus elevating the chance of drawing an offensive foul. But most of their work is done outside the paint, where banging your opponent is more apt to draw a whistle. Vando spends much more of his on-ball defensive time in the trenches with the behemoths, where the early action is a head-to-toe joust and collapsing space will earn you a reverberating elbow-shoulder thwack. 

In other words, be it rebounding, defending, or participating in the dogfight (however it occurs), Vando gets smacked in the face more than anyone on the team, and can be found prone on the court trying to regather his senses with increasing regularity. 

Misplaced optimism

The ways Vando is emblematic of this season’s Wolves are not all positive. The fact that he is not only the team’s most frequently deployed power forward, but also the one who provides their most rugged resistance at that position is emblematic of the Wolves lack of size and depth in the frontcourt. And the fact that he presents little to no threat on offense more than six feet away from the basket is a concerning factor in why a team featuring a Big 3 of KAT, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell ranks no better than 24th in points scored per possession. 

In the first minute of the second half in Sunday night’s much-needed win over Portland, Edwards brought three defenders to him on a drive to the hoop and then flicked it out to a wide-open Vando in the left corner. And for the second straight game, Vanderbilt sank a three-pointer from the corner. 

This was a cause of much rejoicing within the Wolves organization and among its fan base, a giddiness that rose another notch when, down four halfway through the fourth quarter, Edwards again dished to Vando in the left corner. As Portland’s 290-pound goliath Jusef Nurkic lumbered out to contest the shot, Vando put the ball on the deck and sped past everybody for a dunk. 

After the game, Wolves media noted the saliency of Vando’s two-game streak of treys in compelling Nurkic to come out and prevent another long-range bomb. Vando’s teammates joined in the fun, recounting how Vando has been honing his three-point shot since preseason and welcoming its unveiling. 

This is ridiculous, on a par with the Josh Okogie song-and-dance his first two and a half seasons in the league. On the rare occasions when Okogie would locate the center of the hoop on two or three of his jumpers, he would correctly inform the media with a shy smile that his faith was replenished by teammates — especially but not limited to KAT — encouraging him to keep shooting. Now, a third of the way through his fourth season, Okogie’s career field goal percentage is 40.1, and 27.2 from three-point range. It is the reason he has fallen out of the Wolves rotation.

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The boomlet of optimism for Vando’s deadeye is even less credible. The two three-pointers he has converted in the past two games were the second and third of a career that matches Okogie’s three-and-a-third seasons for longevity. Vando is now 3-for-19 from long range, which is 18.8%. This season he is now 2-for-9, which is 22.2%. For the rim-protecting Nurkic to vacate the paint in an already-doomed attempt to decently contest the shot was not something Vando earned. It was a horrible mistake. 

An offense still too reliant on KAT

The overreaction by the Wolves and their fans was akin to a group trapped in a cave suddenly thinking they see a sliver of light. The hard truth is that Minnesota’s offense has devolved down to a Big 1 this season and his name is Towns. KAT is shooting a career-high 42.3% from beyond the three-point arc thus far this season. The next-most accurate shooter on the roster is KAT’s backup, Naz Reid, at 35.5%. No other Wolves player is currently above the league average of 34.8%, albeit not for lack of trying. The Littler 2 of DLo and Ant currently rank 6th and 9th in treys attempted per game, sporadically splashing them in at a rate of 33% and 33.8%, respectively. 

But the offensive malaise is not just from long range. According to the website Cleaning the Glass, which strips meaningless garbage time from their calculations, the Wolves rank 28th among the 30 NBA teams in terms of points scored per play in their halfcourt offense. 

Early in the season, teams discovered that if they defended KAT with a smaller but more mobile player, they could diminish his long range capabilities. If the Wolves countered by maneuvering KAT closer to the hoop, teams would respond by bringing their big man over for the double-team. They were able to do this because the big was almost always “guarding” Vando, which is to say leaving him alone if he didn’t venture near the paint. Bottom line, the luxury of not having to worry about Vando as a scoring threat away from the paint prevented the Wolves from spacing the defense and better enabled opponents in their effort to cut off the head of the snake, KAT, is the Wolves offense.

Slowly but surely making strides

In fairness to Vando, his hustle and grit claws back a fair bit of the offensive prowess his clanking siphons away from the team’s scoring prowess. Yes, the Wolves are terrible in points scored per play in their halfcourt sets, where offensive schemes and defensive counters can be implemented. But Vando’s offensive rebounding adds plays to the overall offensive possession — they add the most plays and score the most points off of putbacks, helping to raise their offensive efficiency per possession to 24th

The other reason the team’s offensive efficiency is merely bad instead of rotten is because the Wolves scrapping style of play creates more opportunities for them to score in transition, without any halfcourt action. Again per Cleaning the Glass, they score the fourth-most points in transition off of the second-most steals in the league. Concurrently, the stats at nba.com reveal Vando to be the disrupter-in-chief, ranking 4th in the NBA in loose ball recoveries, 7th in deflections and 10th in steals per 36 minutes played. 

The inflated ballyhoo over a couple of three-pointers obscures some of the strides Vando has slowly but surely been making to upgrade his offensive utility. In fact the game in Portland provided some sterling examples. In the final minute of the first half, KAT dribbled from the three-point arc to the top of the key, where he was met by a trio of Trailblazers. Vando cut from the slot at the perfect time and had an uncontested dunk off KAT’s feed. Then late in the third quarter, Vando and DLo worked a high pick-and-roll by the three-point arc, with DLo creating space by taking a wide arc on his drive to the hoop before delivering one of his patented pocket-bounce passes to a streaking Vando for another slam. 

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Finch’s offensive philosophy requires healthy doses of both ball movement and player movement off the ball. This would have been more of a liability for Vando earlier in the season, because he was stone-handed receiving passes and exclusively left-handed converting the passes he did catch into shots. Over time, the miscues off the feed have diminished and his ability use the right-handed side of the hoop has expanded, albeit not nearly enough. 

Unfortunately, less can be done to remedy Vando’s lack of height and brawn. At both ends of the Wolves recent five-game losing streak, in defeats against Washington and Cleveland, they were overwhelmed by opponents attacking them in the paint. By the numbers, this isn’t a concern — the Wolves are tied for 8th in fewest paint points allowed per game. But the ease with which those two foes exposed Minnesota’s glaring lack of size and strength feels like a harbinger of woes to come. 

The problem with a scrapping, disruptive style of defense is that the margin of error is thin. Attempts to foster chaos leave you vulnerable to overreaction by offenses using your momentum against you. This is especially true against potent offenses that possess both skilled big men and accurate long-range shooters. 

A bargain, verging on a steal

In the big picture, if the Wolves are ever going to seriously compete in the postseason, they will need larger, sturdier skill players. This may reduce Vando’s prominence, but the Wolves would still be wise to nurture and try to retain the benefits he brings to the team. 

For a long time now, the franchise has keyed its rebuilding efforts upon the promise of supposedly rising stars, from Al Jefferson to Kevin Love to Andrew Wiggins to KAT, Ant and DLo. That fixation has obscured an organizational failure nearly as damaging to long-term success as the stunted blossom of supposed prodigies — the chronic absence of quality role players. 

Vando is becoming a feel-good exception to that dearth in development. Although he is still quite young — less than 18 months older than Jaden McDaniels — he’s knocked around in obscurity with injuries, a trade, and a glaring weakness or two, experiences that have tempered his resolve and accelerated his maturity. That the player who personifies most of the pros and cons of this improved contingent of Timberwolves just signed a 3-year, $13.8 million contract in September should make longtime fans of this team happy. It is already a bargain, and headed toward a steal.