Meet the Wildcats: Vanderbilt’s ‘inner dog,’ leadership readies him for rookie season

Special thanks to Papa John’s for presenting this year’s Meet the Wildcats series.

The 2017-18 season is fast approaching, and head coach John Calipari’s latest top-ranked recruiting class features seven fresh new faces. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will profile each of Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with an episode of the Behind Kentucky Basketball podcast, as well as a video of each player playing a game of Horse against either Kentucky basketball great Rex Chapman or Hollywood actor and Kentucky basketball superfan Josh Hopkins. The 2017-18 series continues with Jarred Vanderbilt, another 6-foot-9 hybrid forward who plays with an “inner dog” and welcomes competition in everything he does.

Podcast: Behind Kentucky Basketball with Jarred Vanderbilt

T
here’s a certain something about Jarred Vanderbilt.

Whether it’s his energy, his competitiveness, his confidence or just how comfortable he is in his own skin, Vanderbilt has an air about him that draws others to him.

To borrow a commonly used word from Kentucky head coach John Calipari, Vanderbilt is a “gatherer.”

Off the court, he is often seen with a smile on his face. He also usually has a few people around him. He likes to joke around and have fun, but when it comes to basketball, he’s able to flip a switch and change his mentality.

“I feel like I’m just a leader no matter what I do on and off the court,” Vanderbilt said. “I try to motivate my guys and I try to build chemistry with everybody. You can ask anybody on the team, I’ve had conversations with all of them. I’m just trying to grow a bond. I feel like that will benefit us in the long run. By us having a bond off the court is going to translate over. That’s my main goal.”

Bio Blast

Position: Forward
Date of birth: April 3, 1999
Parents: Robert and Gwendolyn Vanderbilt
Hometown: Houston, Texas
High school: Victory Prep
Nickname: Vando
Twitter: @JVando_
Instagram: @jvando_
Favorite TV show: Martin
Favorite food: Seafood
Favorite superhero: Superman
Favorite player: LeBron James
Favorite sport/hobby outside of basketball: Ping pong
Favorite movie: Friday
Favorite musical artist: Lil Wayne

The youngest of six kids, Vanderbilt said he used to get beat up and bullied by his siblings when he was growing up, but that’s where his “inner dog” came from and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Playing basketball in the front yard, there were times – whether it be because he was getting blown out or perhaps caught an inadvertent elbow – Vanderbilt wanted to pack up and quit. Instead, his siblings pushed him to keep playing and over time he changed his attitude and mentality, which he carries with him today.

“On the court, (I’m) just a dog, a leader,” Vanderbilt said. “Just trying to do everything for my team to win. That’s the main thing with me, just winning. No matter how you do it, we just want to win. Who gets the credit doesn’t really matter; just want to win.”

In a bit of irony, considering Vanderbilt’s gathering tendencies, many believed after Vanderbilt verbally committed to Kentucky just prior to Christmas that it marked the end of Kentucky’s chances of acquiring Kevin Knox, a similar hybrid forward. Add in that Kentucky also had PJ Washington, a 6-foot-7 forward similarly capable of playing inside or out and handle the ball, and Knox coming to Kentucky seemed like a long shot.

Instead, it was Vanderbilt who reached out to Knox and told him to join them in the Bluegrass State.

“I felt like we had something special lined up,” said Vanderbilt of his decision to reach out to Knox. “Of course we’re similar, but we also have some differences in our game where we can play together as well. I can just imagine how much better I’m going to be just going against him and PJ in practice every day. So, that’s the main thing for me. I feel like we can work it out, and just wanted to build a dynasty.”

Coming from Houston, Vanderbilt attended Victory Prep, where academically he posted approximately a 3.7 grade-point average and athletically he averaged 28.5 points, 13.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game as a senior. It was a big season for Vanderbilt, who was injured the previous summer and began to fall a bit in the ever-popular recruiting rankings.

Vanderbilt kept that momentum rolling in the high school all-star games. After a quiet performance in the McDonald’s All American Game, he scored a team-high tying 19 points on 8-of-12 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds for the USA Junior National Select Team at the Nike Hoop Summit. He then started in the Jordan Brand Classic and scored 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting and grabbed seven boards.

Jarred Vanderbilt, left, is a natural leader who brings his teammates together. (photo by Chet White, UK Athletics)

“I feel like during the injury (the previous summer) I came back, put the work in and felt like I was in good shape,” Vanderbilt said. “So, just my confidence was up there. And because I had been sitting out so long I felt like I needed to make a statement because I had pretty much been slept on for a while. I feel like me making those statements in those games did me a huge advantage.”

Unfortunately, his performance at the Jordan Brand Classic was overshadowed by an ankle injury in the closing minutes of the game. The injury looked bad and the silence surrounding the injury was deafening, causing many to wonder just how bad it was.

“When I hurt my ankle (during the Jordan Brand Classic), I think the timing actually was good,” Vanderbilt said. “You don’t want nothing like that happening, but I think the timing was good when it happened. That was the last event so I was able to rest after, get ready for summer, get ready for the season. But it wasn’t really that bad of an injury. It was all pretty good. We were just playing it cautious. I didn’t have any other events left, so I just got rested, tried to get 100 percent and just prepared for the next level.

“I don’t know if it was Jordan Brand just trying to keep it under wraps or what, but I was fine at the time. I guess they didn’t have that much media coverage for the incident so the fans were worried, everybody was worried, but I was pretty good.”

The rehab has gone well and he says he’s now back to 100 percent and “good to go.” Having gone through the rehab process before, Vanderbilt knew what to do and the patience and determination required to get back to full health.

“On the court, (I’m) just a dog, a leader. Just trying to do everything for my team to win. That’s the main thing with me, just winning.” – Jarred Vanderbilt
The injuries have also given Vanderbilt a different vantage point of the game. He says the entire process has been “a blessing in disguise,” and he’s learned more by watching on the sidelines and logging hours in the film room.

His time in the film room is but one example of his forward-thinking approach to the game. Around the time he was just an eighth grader, Vanderbilt began getting more attention and started to realize what basketball could do for him down the road. It was at that time that he shifted his focus to basketball exclusively (he had played some football and ran track) and started taking the game more seriously.

Since then, he’s worked to treat his body like a pro, including his eating and training habits, and how he carries himself. He got a glimpse of what the future may hold when he was treated like a pro over the summer by all the young kids at Kentucky’s various basketball camps.

“It puts a smile on my face just watching them have a smile and enjoy themselves,” Vanderbilt said. “It’s a great experience.

“When they want to come take pictures and autographs, it’s still surreal. It’s like, who am I? But no, it’s great. We were at that age one day and we were the same way. It’s a great feeling.”

Many of the young kids Vanderbilt met surely dream of one day leading the Wildcats in scoring. One of Vanderbilt’s goals at Kentucky is to lead the team in rebounding. In fact, the versatile forward said he wants to average double-digit boards.

It’s a lofty goal considering, a) he’s 6-9 and viewed by some as more of a wing, and b) only two players have averaged that many rebounds in a season in the Calipari era: Julius Randle and Anthony Davis.

Vanderbilt, a super-athletic wing, said he wants to lead the Wildcats in rebounding this season. (photo by Quinn Foster, UK Athletics)

“We’re going to be fighting for the rebounds with each other more than the other team,” Vanderbilt said. “I’d rather one of us knock it out of bounds than let the other team get it. We have a very competitive group so I feel like everybody’s going to go after every rebound. It doesn’t matter who gets it, we’re going to be out in transition and we’re laying it up.”

The competitiveness of the game is what most endears Vanderbilt to it. He doesn’t limit that to basketball though. On the ping pong table, he’s “the current champion of the Lodge.”

“We have tournaments almost every weekend,” he said. “Need to go ahead and get a belt so everybody knows who the champion is.”

Pair that competitive spirit with his traits of being a gatherer and you understand why he was trying to draw as many talented players to Kentucky as he could.

“I’m just a hard worker. That’s been in me since I was young,” Vanderbilt said. “Kevin is a great player and just me going against him every day, or whoever, PJ, Wenyen (Gabriel), all the other forwards, I feel like that’s just going to make me better. Other places, I’m not saying the competition isn’t as high, but you’re not going against a five-star athlete every day in practice. I feel like that’s an advantage you have coming here.”