In January, the Timberwolves were down double digits early in a game in Denver.
Looking for a spark, former coach Ryan Saunders turned to his bench and put forward Jarred Vanderbilt in for some of the first significant minutes Vanderbilt played since joining the Wolves from the Nuggets shortly before the coronavirus shut down the 2019-20 season.
The rebounding and defense Vanderbilt brought helped the Wolves come back in the game, even though they would go on to lose by six.
There was another stretch where Vanderbilt was out of the rotation in late March and early April, but aside from that, Vanderbilt was a regular presence on the floor for the Wolves from that night onward. That led to his contract this summer; he signed a three-year deal (team option for Year 3) worth up to $13.8 million.
The question this season is just where Vanderbilt fits with this roster. He started 30 games last season and started Friday as the Wolves returned to Denver, beating the Nuggets 114-112 in overtime in a preseason game.
Vanderbilt, who usually plays the power forward position, made an impact on defense and rebounding, two things that were in short supply last season and might be again, meaning there could be a role for him in the rotation again.
"As the year went on, I feel like I got better. I got more comfortable," Vanderbilt said. "Because in all honesty, I kind of treated last year like my rookie year, only because the first two years I didn't really get to play much. I was up and down out of the G League, so last year was my first year really playing significant minutes and meaningful minutes, so I feel like as the year went on I was able to grow, learn, get better."
When Chris Finch became the coach, Vanderbilt slowly sunk back to the bench, but eventually Finch recognized what Vanderbilt added to the lineup and started playing him heavier minutes again.
"He's driving a lot of metrics that really affect winning, and we were very fearful that some of the smart teams out there would also see these things, and we were lucky to have him back," Finch said. "He does a lot of things that you don't measure in a traditional box score that really affect your ability to win basketball games."
Vanderbilt finished with 3.1 win shares for the season, according to Basketball Reference. That advanced statistic uses a formula to try and calculate how much a player contributed to winning. Vanderbilt's mark was fourth on the team, just behind Naz Reid (3.2), Ricky Rubio (3.2) and Karl-Anthony Towns (5.4).
"His defensive impact, ability to switch, set the tone, cover for a teammate, cover a lot of ground — he's wired to play that way," Finch said. "But what he really does, he's a possessions guy. He gets steals, he gets offensive rebounds, and these are things we've noted and why it was such a priority to get him back."
What might limit Vanderbilt's ability to stay on the floor is his role in the offense. He had trouble catching at times last year as a roll man in the offense but has worked on that, and worked on his shooting in trying to expand his shot.
"I put a lot of work and attention in on my jump shot," Vanderbilt said. "Getting up a lot of reps. I think the main thing right now is it wasn't so much form. It was just getting a lot of reps in and just getting more comfortable and confident and shooting and taking that shot."
If he can do that, it would be hard for the Wolves to put him back on the bench for long stretches again.