Defense wins championships, but the Minnesota Timberwolves have cracked the top 10 in defensive rating only twice (sixth in 2003-04 and 10th in 2005-06) in 32 seasons. In the same span, they finished dead last in 1991-92 and 2014-15. It’s one of the millions of reasons they have never hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
This year the Wolves are currently seventh in the NBA with a 104.4 defensive rating. A big part of the defensive resurgence is the play of Jarred Vanderbilt. The fourth-year power forward is wreaking havoc on other teams on a nightly basis and is an integral part of the play-in hopeful squad that’s won four straight. Anthony Edwards is already calling Vando a First-Team All-Defensive player, so let’s make a case for Vanderbilt to make an NBA All-Defensive team by season’s end.
First, we must mention how rare it is for a Wolves player to get recognized for their defense. Only two players in franchise history have ever been named to an All-Defensive team. Kevin Garnett made eight straight All-Defensive teams (six first-team and two second-team) as a member of the Timberwolves from 1999-2000 to 2006-07. The other was Jimmy Butler, who was named to the second team in his lone full season in Minnesota (2017-18).
That’s not a great precedent for Vanderbilt to get recognition from voters. He’s not the All-NBA type of player KG was in Minnesota, or Butler has been for four different teams. But if the Wolves continue to win with defense on what was supposed to be a better offensive team, Vando will get his consideration for turning things around.
Vanderbilt’s statistical resume already stands out 17 games into the season.
- He’s averaging 6.9 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 0.8 blocks per game.
- The 22-year-old leads the team in rebounding rate, is second in steal rate, and is tied for sixth in the league with 4.4 deflections per 36 minutes.
- Even the advanced defensive stats love Vando. Vanderbilt’s +1.8 overall defensive RAPTOR from FiveThirtyEight is second on the Timberwolves behind Patrick Beverley and 37th in the league.
- His defensive rating of 100.5 is third amongst Minnesota’s regular rotation players behind only Josh Okogie and (shockingly) D’Angelo Russell.
- And his defensive box plus/minus is a healthy 1.2.
Even the most scientific defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable because it’s increasingly difficult to encompass a player’s complete defensive impact. There’s no doubt that Vanderbilt’s impact on the Wolves goes well beyond his advanced stats. The Wolves are 5-2 since Chris Finch inserted Vanderbilt into the starting lineup and look completely rejuvenated on both ends of the floor. In that span, Minnesota boasts the second-best defensive rating and third-best net rating in the league.
Vanderbilt has been menacing since entering the starting lineup. He’s averaging 6.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and one block per game with an insanely stingy 85.1 defensive rating which balloons to 109.5 when Vando sits.
The 6’9”, 214-pound Vanderbilt is undersized for a power forward, but what he lacks in size, he more than makes up for in versatility. He’s a switchable big who can comfortably guard 1-5 on the court and is a killer at the point of attack. Not to resort to hyperbole, but it’s hard not to squint and see a young Dennis Rodman when watching Vanderbilt out-hustle everyone else on the court for a rebound.
If you think I’m crazy, look at Vanderbilt this season, his fourth in the NBA, compared to Rodman’s fourth season in 1989-90. It was a season that saw Rodman make his first All-Star appearance and ended with his Detroit Pistons as NBA champions.
Nobody is comparing this version of the Timberwolves to the ‘Bad Boy’ Pistons. But if Edwards is truly going to ascend to Michael Jordan status now that he grew two inches over the summer, he’ll need a Rodman-like “worm” to do the dirty work for him. Vanderbilt can be that type of role player. Maybe not at a Hall of Fame level, but he can provide the Timberwolves with hard work and hustle plays without much need to get rewarded on offense.
The biggest hindrance to Vanderbilt getting All-Defense honors is his playing time or lack thereof. He’s playing just 20.6 minutes per game this season, which bumps up only slightly to 22.7 over the last seven games he’s started.
Last year’s All-Defensive First-Team saw five players who all averaged more than 30 minutes per game. The second team was similar. The exception was Matisse Thybulle, who played 20 minutes per game for the Philadephia 76ers’ second-ranked defense. Vanderbilt could very well see a bump in playing time as the schedule gets much more challenging for Minnesota heading into December.
Ultimately, it’s up to the Wolves if Vando can compete for an All-Defensive Team selection this season. If they continue to play their best defense in decades and compete in a suddenly soft Western Conference, he has a chance. Vanderbilt may never be a household name to NBA casuals. But for die-hard Timberwolves fans, he is quickly becoming a cult hero in the Twin Cities and has a chance to be an impact player for years to come.