Denver Nuggets commit to 41st overall pick, Jarred Vanderbilt

Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images /

The Denver Nuggets, by unexpectedly signing Jarred Vanderbilt to an NBA contract, have invested a great deal in the 41st selection of the 2018 NBA Draft.

One year ago, Jarred Vanderbilt was the 19th-ranked recruit in ESPN’s Top 100. Vanderbilt ranked ahead of eventual 2018 lottery picks in Trae Young and Kentucky teammate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He was highly touted.

Then Vanderbilt had a freshman year from hell. He missed the majority of his lone season with the Wildcats, appearing in just 14 games. When he played, his role was minimal. Vanderbilt played 17 minutes per game, averaging a mere 4.9 field goal attempts per contest.

When draft season rolled around, Vanderbilt wisely tested the waters (without an agent, allowing him to maintain his NCAA eligibility if the feedback he got from teams was suboptimal).

Surprisingly, Vanderbilt elected to stay in the draft. It was a puzzling decision for a player coming off such an injury-riddled, disappointing year. Vanderbilt had his fans, but his draft stock was anything but stable. Some considered him a first round talent. Others doubted he’d get drafted.

On draft night, the Denver Nuggets ended the uncertainty, nabbing Vanderbilt with the 41st overall selection.

Immediately, speculation on Vanderbilt’s value spread. Not on his value in the draft, not on his value on the court, but the value — or more accurately, type — of his contract.

As a second round pick, Vanderbilt was not subject to the strict rookie scale of the first round, which means the Nuggets had flexibility. Many assumed the Nuggets would make use of that flexibility.

With 14 guaranteed contracts already on the books, the consensus was Vanderbilt would receive one of Denver’s two two-way roster slots (the other occupied by Thomas Welsh, who the Nuggets selected 58th overall).

It made sense. Vanderbilt is currently rehabbing a foot injury. It’s unclear how much he’ll be able to play in 2018-19. He doesn’t exactly help with Denver’s roster imbalance either, as his limited offensive skills preclude him from playing the wing despite his immense defensive versatility.

The Nuggets thought differently:

The deal is for three years at the rookie minimum (no word yet on whether those years are guaranteed). Financially, that’s a much larger commitment than a two-way contract. More importantly, Denver’s committing an NBA roster spot to Vanderbilt.

Denver now has 15 players on guaranteed NBA contracts. Yet, the team is still absent a backup point guard. Not in the sense that they were last year, when Emmanuel Mudiay meant Denver was virtually without a backup point guard, but far more literally.

Denver has one point guard (Jamal Murray) on the roster and no one else who can even do a convincing impression, especially with Will Barton now sharpied in as the team’s starting small forward.

Summer League standout Monte Morris could be in line for Denver’s remaining two-way contract, but that would limit Morris to 45 days with the big club—not enough for a backup point guard who needs to play 82 games.

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Something else has to give. Denver could waive (and stretch) Darrell Arthur or Kenneth Faried, which would lessen the team’s luxury tax payments and open a roster spot. The team could also make a trade. But something is going to happen, because Denver’s current roster situation is untenable.

More abstractly, there’s the implicit commitment Denver has made to Vanderbilt. In a year in which he is unlikely to contribute anything to the Nuggets, Denver has awarded him a roster spot (during the same year in which Denver’s lottery pick, Michael Porter Jr., will be using a roster spot while rehabbing injury rather than playing for at least part of the year).

To secure Vanderbilt for three years (and his restricted free agency afterward), Denver has effectively cut its roster to 13. For a team that is hungry for a playoff berth, that’s an impressive level of future-orientation.

As Vanderbilt’s recruiting profile indicates, he’s an intriguing talent. He has potential to be a compelling small-ball center due to his defensive versatility, motor, ball-handling and passing. There’s an off-chance that unique combination of skills enables Vanderbilt to be an ideal frontcourt partner for Nikola Jokic.

Presumably, Denver’s buying into that potential, which is encouraging. The Nuggets are close to being good, but remain far away from being great. Securing a long-term piece at the expense of a roster spot, a victory here or there in the present, is awesome foresight.

Next: 2018 NBA free agency tracker: Grades for every deal so far

Jarred Vanderbilt may never live up to who he was as a recruit. He may never stay healthy. The Denver Nuggets, however, are clearly invested in him.