LEXINGTON, Ky. (KT) — John Calipari won’t be putting much pressure on Jarred Vanderbilt once he returns to the court.
Vanderbilt, a 6-foot-8 forward, who has been out because of a leg injury for the past three months, began practicing with the Wildcats earlier this week and made an immediate impact. Despite the impressive beginning, Calipari wants Vanderbilt to ease his way into the rotation.
“I basically told him, Listen, when you go in, you're going to play seven or eight minutes a half, limited minutes for a while,” Calipari said following Kentucky’s 74-73 victory over Texas A&M earlier this week. “I’m going to put you out there, let you run around, let you feel good about yourself and you're out. But he's going to have to make that decision. It's more mental. I mean, he can play. He couldn't play 40 minutes or anything like that, but he can play. What he does, I never remembered him being as physically strong as he is. He changed up practice. It was physical.”
Although his minutes will be limited, Vanderbilt wants to bring energy to the court.
“I know what I can bring — having a (good) motor and playing hard, being versatile and doing what I do best,” he said. “I want to be a playmaker, rebound and basically do everything that the team needs to win. I’m willing to do that.”
Calipari said Vanderbilt isn’t afraid to share the basketball with his teammates and can play all five positions on the court, giving the Wildcats more versatility, especially on offense. The Kentucky coach added he’s not sure when Vanderbilt will make his debut, considering the team’s next two games are on the road at Vanderbilt (Saturday) and South Carolina on Tuesday.
“He's a willing passer, which this team needs,” he said. “It would be nice, but I'm not challenging him. I’d like it to be his first game, a home game, so he can get some love, kind of work through what he's got to work through. I'd rather have that than a road game. But I'm going to leave that up to him.”
Calipari’s players also have been impressed with Vanderbilt behind the scenes and like what the freshman forward brings to the table.
"He gives us another element,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “I think he's a matchup problem creating stuff off the dribble at the four spot. He was really tough in practice, physical. He (has) made us better in practice and I can't wait for him to get back fully."
Hamidou Diallo has been surprised by Vanderbilt’s skills and said he’s “been playing great” in practice this week.
“He's been bringing a lot of energy to practice,” Diallo said. “He's on a timetable. He's just going to take his time and make the right decision to play when the time is right."
PJ Washington has been competing against Vanderbilt since the pair were in grade school and is looking forward to sharing the same court with his former foe.
"Jarred's a tough guy,” Washington said. “He's been tough since we were kids. I've been playing him since third grade, so I really know a lot about him. I can't wait for him to get back. He's a key to our team and we really need him and he's going to be great for us."
Even before his return to practice this week, Vanderbilt was impressed with his teammates during summer workouts.
“I don’t think anybody gets to practice against the amount of length and talent that we do, all on one team,” he said last month. “Just being able to go against each other every day, just making each other better and just knowing you can’t slack because you have some other guy that’s coming for you to let you know that next day. It makes you work hard and compete every day.”
Gametracker: Kentucky at Vanderbilt, Saturday, 4 p.m. TV/Radio: SEC Network, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.