MINNEAPOLIS — The Timberwolves were miles down the road on their way to another blowout defeat Tuesday in Denver.
Minnesota trailed by 12 points early in the second quarter when center Naz Reid picked up his third foul of the game, leaving coach Ryan Saunders with a decision: Go back to veteran big Ed Davis, who already had two fouls of his own, or finally give 21-year-old Jarred Vanderbilt a legitimate opportunity to prove himself.
He chose the latter, inserting Vanderbilt into a non-blowout situation for the first time all season. It was the moment for which Timberwolves fans had long waited. Vanderbilt looked good in the preseason, and impressed with his effort in “garbage time” during early season lopsided losses. Could he do the same in minutes that mattered?
The answer was a resounding “Yes.”
It was Vanderbilt’s relentless energy on both ends of the floor that sparked a 34-13 second-quarter rally that gave Minnesota a three-point lead heading into the half. He was the spark that ignited a previously lifeless Wolves’ roster.
“I was just trying to speed the game up, get physical. I feel like early on (the Nuggets) were the aggressor,” Vanderbilt said. “They were kind of pushing us off our spots and being more aggressive defensively. My mindset was to go in there and change the tone, make us be aggressive, make us the faster-paced team. That was my motto going into the game.”
Vanderbilt finished with 11 points — including six in the fourth quarter — five rebounds, three blocks, two steals and two assists. He did that while sometimes successfully, other times not so much, battling Nikola Jokic down low. Minnesota outscored Denver by nine points when Vanderbilt was on the floor.
While the minutes often haven’t been meaningful, the Wolves have outscored their opponents in the minutes Vanderbilt has played in four of his five appearances; they were even in the fifth. This is a Wolves team that, without star center Karl-Anthony Towns, has proven it can get static and lack energy. There already have been countless occasions in this young season where a flat Minnesota needed a jumpstart.
Thus far, Vanderbilt has always been revved up.
“That’s how I play. That’s how I’ve always played,” Vanderbilt said. “Like (Coach Saunders) always say, there’s two things you can control: your attitude and your effort. I feel like me going out there and just playing as hard as I can, it just becomes contagious. When I start playing like that, I feel like the team kind of piggybacks.”
Saunders said the Wolves are “continuing to look for fight.” Vanderbilt has that in spades. And it’s not just effort he brings, either. He does not possess the offensive skillset of a Naz Reid, but his defense and his at least sporadically good screen setting are improvements.
The latter may be one reason Vanderbilt has complemented D’Angelo Russell well in the smattering of minutes in which the two have shared the floor. Russell’s best offensive game this season came Tuesday, when he tallied 33 points and 11 assists. The two looked like a viable pick-and-roll combination.
In the 30 minutes in which Vanderbilt and Russell have played together this season, Russell has shot 61 percent from the floor. In Russell’s other 182 minutes, he has shot 40 percent. Vanderbilt noted the two don’t have chemistry because of their limited shared court time, but the 6-foot-9, 215-pound forward out of Kentucky started to figure out Russell’s game and how the guard was being defended as the Denver game wore on.
“Just kind of reading off him and feeding off him, trying to get him open so he can make decisions, make plays and score the basketball,” Vanderbilt said. “Just trying to feed off him and gain chemistry as the game went along.”
Saunders also noted there is a potential fit between Vanderbilt and Towns when the all-star center returns to action, where Vanderbilt can guard opposing power forwards but serve as the center in the offense.
Vanderbilt only entered Tuesday’s game when Minnesota’s other two bigs got into foul trouble, and now Josh Okogie is set to potentially return to action Thursday at Portland, which likely means someone else will be squeezed out of the rotation.
But if Vanderbilt is a potential fit alongside Minnesota’s two cornerstones, getting him minutes now would seem prudent. That could be the path Saunders is on.
“I’ve wanted to try to find him some minutes, and he helped himself (Tuesday) when we lacked … some energy or some of those intangibles at times,” Saunders said. “He came in and gave those to us. … He definitely helped himself (Tuesday).”