PORTLAND, Ore. – Even though Jarred Vanderbilt hadn't played significant minutes outside of mop-up duty, he sat on the bench and watched attentively as the fouls piled up for the Timberwolves' big men during Tuesday's 123-116 loss to Denver.
"When you look down our roster, there's not too many other bigs," Vanderbilt said. "So that right there made me just get my mind-set right that it's a possibility of me going in."
After Naz Reid picked up his third foul early in the second quarter, coach Ryan Saunders turned to Vanderbilt. It was go time for the third-year forward, who began his career with the Nuggets before coming to the Wolves in the Juancho Hernangomez and Malik Beasley deal in February.
That familiarity with the Nuggets served Vanderbilt well as he helped turn the game around in the first half with his energy and production on both ends of the floor. He finished with 11 points, five rebounds, two blocks and three steals in 23 minutes while guarding All-NBA center Nikola Jokic.
"Like Coach always says, there's two things you can control: your attitude and your effort. I feel like me going out there just playing as hard as I can, it just becomes contagious," Vanderbilt said. "When I start playing like that, I feel like the team kind of piggybacks. We went on a run, we started getting stops, started getting deflections, steals. I feel like that energy is just contagious."
Vanderbilt helped turn what was an 18-point first-half deficit into a three-point lead by halftime. In the process he went from being an afterthought before Tuesday's game to someone Saunders left on the floor in the fourth quarter of a close game.
He took advantage of that opportunity, one that presented itself because the Wolves are grasping for anything or anybody that might work in the absence of Karl-Anthony Towns, who has missed five consecutive games because of a left wrist dislocation. The Wolves were 2-0 with Towns in the lineup; they are 0-5 since then.
Like Vanderbilt said, looking down the bench reveals there aren't a lot of players for the four and five positions. Vanderbilt had to man the five and guard Jokic as best he could. Ed Davis only began getting playing time once Towns went out and isn't an offensive threat. Reid has had nice moments on both ends of the floor but is still young and learning while Vanderbilt is vying for meaningful minutes.
When Towns went out for a time last season because of a knee injury — before President Gersson Rosas made massive changes at the trade deadline — the Wolves defense improved with Gorgui Dieng starting in his place.
No such silver lining has appeared on that end of the floor through the five games Towns has missed this season. The Wolves had the worst defensive rating in the league entering Wednesday, and they look more like the team they were when Towns hurt his wrist toward the end of last season.
That the Wolves needed a career night from Vanderbilt shows just where this team likely needs to improve. To survive a stretch without Towns would require depth among the Timberwolves' big men.
The Wolves cut Rondae Hollis-Jefferson after training camp when he could have been that kind of veteran defensive presence. Rosas did that in the name of maintaining roster and salary-cap flexibility, which has been his mantra since taking the job.
That foresight brought in players such as D'Angelo Russell at the deadline. But in the meantime, it can leave the current roster incomplete, which can lead to fewer wins and be counterproductive for the franchise trying to build a winning culture when the losses stack on top of one another.
It can also, in its best moments, reveal new opportunities. Vanderbilt stayed ready and showed what he was able to do.
"I feel like you're always going to get an opportunity. No matter how it comes … so my mind-set was to just stay ready, stay locked in and continue to stay positive," he said. "Especially in this league, once you go down that path of being negative, it's hard to turn it around and get back on the right track."
The Wolves, losers of five straight, could benefit from the same mentality.