When Jarred Vanderbilt earned his first start of the season Wednesday at the Milwaukee Bucks, Timberwolves coach Chris Finch assigned him the rather unenviable task of guarding two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the NBA title last season, and he put up 40 points on the Wolves. But 22-year-old Vanderbilt never eased up on the star player, helping the Wolves to a 113-108 victory and a 3-1 record so far this season.
Vanderbilt's confidence and determination when going toe-to-toe with one of the league's best stem from his intrinsic sense of his on-court identity.
"[He] understands who he is as a basketball player." Finch said. "That's 90 percent of the battle of getting better in this league, knowing who you are and playing towards those strengths."
That can be hard for young players, especially if owning that identity means accepting not being the high-scoring shooter. Vanderbilt was that growing up in Houston, when he averaged 28.5 points a game his senior high school season.
His one college season in 2017-18 at Kentucky didn't give him much time rediscover his game at a higher level, as foot injuries limited him to 14 games. But in those games, he led the team in rebounding, nabbing 10 or more five times.
Rebounding has emerged as one of his hallmarks in the NBA, after Orlando drafted him in 2018 and immediately traded him to the Nuggets. Vanderbilt played in 26 games through two seasons in Denver — the Wolves' Saturday opponent at Target Center — spending much time with the team's G League affiliate. His 2020 trade to the Wolves offered him more consistent NBA playing time, as he appeared in 64 games last season and has in all four so far this year.
In his start at Milwaukee, he grabbed a team-high 13 rebounds while also contributing 10 points.
"I feel like some of the games, we've been beat on the glass, so my mind-set was just to go out there and crash every time, give us a chance to get extra-chance points and be great at defensive rebounding," Vanderbilt said. "Thought we did a good job of that. Me setting the tone, Jaden [McDaniels] was crashing more. He had like 11 rebounds. The guards were rebounding. Everybody was engaged. I feel like this is a contagious thing."
Teammate Anthony Edwards agreed, declaring after the game that Vanderbilt is his "favorite player on the team."
"He's a contagious person," Edwards said. "Anytime he's on the floor, we're playing better, we're playing harder. We're making the extra pass, making the extra closeout. We're one step faster."
Finch called "Vando," as he's nicknamed, "inspirational" for how relentless he is in trying to save a possession. The coach said Vanderbilt played a "complete game" at Milwaukee and seemed to like the dynamic he brought to the starting lineup, meaning Vanderbilt might have solidified his spot there along with McDaniels, Edwards, Karl-Anthony Towns and DeAngelo Russell.
Vanderbilt bases much of his spacing and movements around his teammates, specifically positioning himself opposite Towns when on offense. His ability to mold himself into a better support for the marquee players is a sign of his maturity.
"We've got three very talented offensive players, and a great shooter in Jaden, so my part is just try to piece it all together," Vanderbilt said. "Be in there sacrificing cuts and sacrificing not getting the ball as well. Just kind of keep in mind in the flow of the game, when there's offensive rebounds, a couple steals, transitions and stuff like that. I have no problem with that. It feels like it's a good mixture, having those [guys] on the offensive end and then me and Jaden holding down the defensive end."
To Vanderbilt, knowing his role and playing it to perfection is the key to succeeding and developing in the NBA.
"You've got to have a basic foundation of who you are as a player, and I felt like over the years, I kind of established that myself as being a great energy guy, rebounding, defender, make [that] my staple," Vanderbilt said. "… That's just how you get on the floor, especially as a young player, is just knowing your role and doing it well and making an impact."