Family And Faith Inspire Jarred Vanderbilt On To Next Level
If you were to scroll through Jarred Vanderbilt’s phone contacts, you would come across some real basketball prowess. Kentucky coach John Calipari and former USA Nike Hoop Summit athlete De’Aaron Fox are just a couple of the names you would find.
And then, there is one that really sticks out. You may know him – 2012 Olympic gold medalist and current Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
The two met in Los Angeles at the 2016 Nike Basketball Academy. Vanderbilt, a Houston native, introduced himself to Harden, and the rest is history.
“I think he’s a real humble dude – real cool dude and down to Earth,” said Vanderbilt, who still stays in touch with “The Beard.”
“I think he’s one of the hardest workers. I feel like his game has shown that. He lives in the gym. He always gives me some little advice, just to stay focused and tells me not to get caught in the hype. You just have to continue to work. That’s the main thing, work and keep your circle tight.”
Vanderbilt said he admires Harden’s path to stardom, from the 2012 NBA Sixth Man of the Year to one of the NBA’s best and a max-contract player. The lefties have even shot around together, and Vanderbilt had no shame admitting he attempts to mimic moves from Harden’s game.
“As a left-handed player, you know the defender kind of expects a guy to be right-handed, just because. As a lefty, he has a lot of moves that are unexpected and can catch defenders off guard. So, I try to put that in my game, as well.”
Side-by-side, the 6-foot-9 youngster actually stands four inches taller than his mentor. Because of this, Vanderbilt has drawn comparisons to another lanky lefty, 2004 Olympic bronze medalist and 2010 FIBA World Cup gold medalist Lamar Odom.
He sees it, too, letting out a laugh when it is brought up. Odom and Vanderbilt are eerily similar in size with tremendous versatility and plenty of length. A rebound could be ripped down one second before he is off to the races the next. Vanderbilt is multidimensional, plays positions one through four and says there is not a true, natural spot he belongs on the floor.
“Right now, I believe my biggest strength is my versatility,” he explained. “Just being able to do multiple things on the court, defend multiple positions, being able to create off the dribble with my size and my rebounding skills – my overall intangibles and the impact I can have on the game.
“I’m a point-forward. That’s how I would define my game.”
Vanderbilt is not exaggerating. Point guard is not a spot he only occasionally shifts into. He ran the show for Houston Hoops this past summer, playing the one and averaging 13.5 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game in 16 outings on the Nike EYBL Circuit.
Houston Hoops finished the circuit with a 7-9 record, which was a frustrating start to a bumpy summer for the nation’s 23rd ranked prospect in the class of 2017 ESPN100.
After capturing a gold medal with USA Basketball and the U16 National Team at the 2015 FIBA Americas U16 Championship – a competition in which Vanderbilt started all five games for the USA, averaging 9.8 ppg., 7.8 rpg. and 2.4 apg. – he was invited back for the 2016 USA U17 World Championship Team training camp this past June.
But, a fractured foot on the first day of camp derailed his summer plans.
“It was very frustrating, especially knowing my chances of making the team. I had pretty much been waiting all year for that camp, because it’s once-in-a-lifetime playing for the USA. I feel like everything happens for a reason, though, and there are better things in store.”
His injury carried over into the fall, and Vanderbilt missed a majority of Victory Prep’s early season games. The Cardinals finished with a 15-19 record in 2016-17 after playing a more local, Texas-based schedule than in years past, and with a much younger team.
“It was an up-and-down year, but that’s okay. You learn from it. The good thing about a young team is that they listen and are willing to learn and get better. It’s a great feeling seeing them progress as the season goes on.”
Vanderbilt notes that as his game grew, his abilities as a leader followed suit, and he attributed that to being one of the older players on the 2015 USA U16 National Team. He said his USA Basketball experience, in general, has accelerated his maturity as a person and teammate.
“It taught me how to play with a team concept, and it has prepared me for the next level in college,” he said. “Everybody is going to be, pretty much, as good as you. Everybody is good, so playing with that type of caliber on one team, it was just a great experience.”
As for the next level, he has that figured out, too. The University of Kentucky is the beneficiary, with Vanderbilt announcing his commitment to the Wildcats on Dec. 23, 2016. He said that winning a gold medal with USA Basketball is his greatest athletic accomplishment to date in the video interview of the announcement for ESPNU. And, when asked how he arrived at his decision to head to Lexington, he used one word – “prayer.”
“I prayed. I talked to my family, and we evaluated and came to the conclusion this was the best fit for me.
“After watching Kentucky and their style of play, watching how coach [John Calipari] interacts with his players and how he gets the best out of them – especially when I went out there and watched how hard they practice and work. People on the outside seem to think you just go to Kentucky with status, and you don’t get better and coach Cal doesn’t coach you. You don’t realize until you get out there and see it first hand. After I saw it first hand, I said, ‘This is the spot I want to be at.’”
The move to Lexington, Kentucky, will come after a busy spring of exhibition games, as he is also a McDonald’s All-American and Jordan Brand Classic athlete. But, the Nike Hoop Summit invitation was just a bit sweeter after his trials this past year.
“I honestly didn’t know if my foot injury would have any impact, because I hadn’t competed with the USA for a while. This is just 12 players and not 24, like the other two camps, so I didn’t know if that had any input. It made this a lot sweeter,” he said.
“And, this should be fun. Playing against the World Team, it’s a different type of atmosphere. International players have different styles of play.”
Fellow USA Nike Hoop Summit athlete Quade Green is set to accompany Vanderbilt at Kentucky, where three other former USA Nike Hoop Summit athletes – Isaiah Briscoe, Fox and Wenyen Gabriel – suit up. Fox hosted Vanderbilt on his official visit, and is also a Houston native. The duo competed together for years with Houston Hoops.
“I know De’Aaron well. We’re really close. I still talk to him on a day-to-day basis, just to see how everything is up there. He gives me stuff to look forward to going there next year.”
Fox is slated as a lottery pick for the upcoming NBA Draft, should he declare for the draft, but that has little impact on Vanderbilt, who ironically enough, can play Fox’s position, anyways. He is more worried about getting back to winning and competing at a high level. His competitiveness, he says, comes from his basketball lineage.
Both of Vanderbilt’s parents played collegiate basketball, his brother, Jamal, played at the University of Texas at Tyler and his sister, Jenae, featured at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
“Nobody likes to lose. Me and my siblings, we loved to play outside and we always used to play one-on-one. Losing to them lit a fire under me, and I’ve always hated losing. They put that competitiveness in me.” he said.
“For them to like basketball and to be around basketball, it just made this so much easier, for me to be able to have access to go to the gym every day and have them come with me, or something like that, since they enjoy it as much as I do.”
In the summer before seventh grade, he recalls his family looking on as he dunked a basketball for the first time in their backyard. The Vanderbilt basketball family will be watching from Houston, too, as he embarks on the Nike Hoop Summit and life at Kentucky.
“They taught me to play with a chip on your shoulder. Every time I step between the lines, it’s go hard, no matter who is in front of me. And, just to keep God first, that’s the main thing they stress.”
And who knows, maybe James Harden will be watching from Houston, too, and maybe he will recognize some familiar moves.