Raptors' Fred VanVleet has opportunity, clarity ahead of season

Fred VanVleet (23) warms up prior to Game 3 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. (Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports)
Fred VanVleet (23) warms up prior to Game 3 of the 2019 NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena. (Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports)

Early in the second half of Tuesday’s Toronto Raptors pre-season opener, OG Anunoby swung the ball to Fred VanVleet 30 feet out right elbow extended. Without hesitation, the one-Finals-MVP-vote-getter drained the catch-and-shoot.

An offensive rebound usually leaves the defence scrambling to get back in position, and by the time the Houston Rockets figured out who they hadn’t accounted for, the ball rippled through the net. From undrafted to key cog on a G League championship team to a critical piece in the Raptors’ championship run, VanVleet is going take any inch he’s given and turn it into a yard.

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VanVleet had 12 points in the third quarter and finished with 16 to go along with five rebounds and five assists in 28 minutes. With a chance to start as Kyle Lowry sat, he was always going to make sure he made the most of his opportunity.

If there was one player paying special attention to Lowry’s status heading into what was the final year of his deal, it was VanVleet. The one-year extension and the stated desire of Masai Ujiri to compete at a high level this year makes it quite possible VanVleet is going to spend most of his time as a reserve not only this season but the next. Whereas he may have initially been eyeing the starting job as early as next year, the 25-year-old will now know there’s a decent chance that if he wants to be a starter as soon as next season, a new team may be the only way to fulfill that desire.

There are certain matchups which will lend toward playing both point guards together (see: Steph Curry), but the league’s shift toward length on the perimeter probably leaves Nick Nurse leaning on the pairing as a starting duo relatively infrequently (Norman Powell started the first half of this game while Patrick McCaw got the nod in the second). VanVleet will now know that with Lowry potentially around for the 2020-21 season, this year will be about showing not just the Raptors, but the league as a whole that he can be more.

“I’m embracing my role and trying to be the best I can be in that,” VanVleet said last December. “But I’m going to be a starter in this league very, very soon. I prepare like that every day and that’s my mindset going forward.”

Something VanVleet struggled with last year was the pick-and-roll. He produced just 0.78 points per possession as the primary ball handler, which placed him among the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Jerryd Bayless. He struggled to efficiently penetrate the defence, regularly Nash-ing around the paint without taking the offence forward and often having to reset.

Playing with the Bench Mob in 2017-18, VanVleet was very successful playing off the ball as more of a scoring than playmaking threat and that’s part of what makes him effective next to Lowry. Over the past two seasons, VanVleet has shot 42.8 per cent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers on 358 attempts.

In this game, having Pascal Siakam as a primary option in the starting unit allowed him to slide into that role once again, but he showed flashes of improvement in the pick-and-roll as well alongside Serge Ibaka, a chemistry he lacked last year and became even more palpable because of the synergy between Lowry and Ibaka.

Here, it’s the decisiveness in recognizing the mismatch as soon as he’s switched onto Clint Capela and the quickness of the left-to-right crossover that allows him to finish at the rim.

In the next play, it’s the ability to penetrate without help that is encouraging. A game that featured as much offence as this one did means there’s going to need to be a lot more of this on display well into the regular season to genuinely consider it an improved facet of his game, but the ability to break down a defender and force the defence to collapse is such an integral success of effective guard play in the NBA.

Ibaka has thrived being on the inside as a center, so it will be interesting to see how effective VanVleet can be in this regard when Gasol is on the floor likely stationed outside the paint, allowing for less intimidation at the rim.

Though this game didn’t have much to offer on the defensive side of the ball, VanVleet continues to prove that effective girth resistance can be an effective tactic in negating a lack of height, and his understanding of angles and use of his body to cut off driving lanes or at least make his opponent work in the post makes him a plus-defender.

Excelling on basketball’s biggest stage has certainly worked wonders for VanVleet’s notoriety and perception across the league, and with resources scarce in the free agency class of 2020, the allure of what he brings to the table may be too good to resist. The NBA has projected the salary cap to be at $118M for the 2020-21 season, and while there are several teams with cap space, the Miami Heat will potentially be looking to replace Goran Dragic. Orlando — the place where VanVleet made his first NBA impression — will have room to maneuver and a starting opportunity depending on how Markelle Fultz performs, and Dwane Casey may offer a fit for him in Detroit with the Pistons.

The Raptors, for their part, will certainly prefer to keep him, as VanVleet is a long way from being viewed the way Patrick Patterson and Lou Williams were upon the expiry of their respective contracts and could be a key member of the future core. He has stated several times his affinity for Toronto and his desire to remain a Raptor, but the key free agency questions will surround the dollar amount and role he’s looking for next July.

“I’m never going to hurt the team in terms of what I want individually. That always comes after our team goals but those goals are there as well,” VanVleet said at training camp. “I’m gonna do a good job of keeping everything in perspective and just layering it and anchoring it in order. As long as you keep the team first, everything else will work itself out. I’m not gonna hurt our team with my own ambition. If they want me to start, I’ll start. If they don’t then I’ll be the best bench player I can be.”

There may be teams looking to preserve their cap room for the loaded free agent class of 2021, but for those looking to bet on VanVleet as a starter, there may be a match. This season is about proving he deserves that shot.

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