Fred VanVleet "reaching for the stars" beyond bench role

William LouNBA reporter

QUEBEC CITY — Fred VanVleet isn’t in the habit of putting limits on himself. He wouldn’t be here if he did.

It’s been a storybook career for VanVleet, the undrafted guard who stands no taller than 5-foot-11 that went on to earn a Finals MVP vote in the Toronto Raptors’ championship. Everything he’s gotten has been earned. VanVleet had to play into a contract in training camp three seasons ago, grind his way up through the G-League and establish himself as a premium reserve as part of the Raptors’ bench mob before breaking onto the scene as one of Toronto’s most unlikely heroes.

Heading into his fourth season, VanVleet has already established himself as one of the best reserves in the league. But by no means is he satisfied. With unrestricted free agency around the corner, VanVleet has a starting spot in mind. He said it before, and he said it again at training camp — VanVleet sees himself as a starter, and he won’t stop until he gets there.

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“If I end up being a bench player my whole career then so be it, but that’s not what I’m trying to do,” VanVleet said. “I’m reaching for the stars, I don’t put limits on myself, I think the world of myself, and I put the work in to think the world of myself. So, it’ll happen, and whenever it happens I’ll be ready for it.”

VanVleet is sure of himself, but are the Raptors? They love his demeanor, he’s stepping up as a leader and he’s great at what he does, but is he an above-average starting point guard? It’s really in the eye of the beholder.

Due to a litany of injuries and Kawhi Leonard’s aggressive load management plan, VanVleet featured in a significant share of games last season, with 28 starts as compared to 36 reserve appearances. As a starter, he averaged 13.9 points and 5.7 assists in 32.4 minutes per game, while shooting 38.3 percent from deep and posting a respectable true-shooting of 56.7 percent. Those numbers are decent, and his on-off numbers were strong.

But it was mostly a mixed bag. VanVleet was asked to be more of a shot creator, and he largely struggled. Chalk it up to the constant churn in the rotation or a lingering back issue, but VanVleet was not efficient at producing his own offense. Over a third of his possessions came out of the pick-and-roll, where he scored 0.78 points per possession, which put him in the 39th percentile league-wide. He was better in isolation, but those plays only accounted for eight percent of his looks.

Kyle Lowry celebrates a 103-74 lead with Fred VanVleet at the end of the third quarter at Staples Center on December 11, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Kyle Lowry celebrates a 103-74 lead with Fred VanVleet at the end of the third quarter at Staples Center on December 11, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

VanVleet was way more effective as a secondary option. He posted an effective field-goal percentage of 56 percent on spot-up looks, which ranks in the 76th percentile. Nick Nurse found great success in pairing his point guards together, as VanVleet played two guard while Kyle Lowry operated with the ball, which made a world of difference: VanVleet posted a true-shooting percentage of 60.7 next to Lowry, as compared to just 48.0 without.

He can run the offense, but there’s a tendency for the ball to stick in his hands. VanVleet led all rotation players in possession at 4.41 seconds per touch, and was the runaway leader in dribbles per touch at 4.20 (Leonard was second in both categories at 4.24 seconds and 3.64 dribbles — but he’s also Kawhi freaking Leonard.) VanVleet will often call for a screen early in the possession, get stumped by the defense, and ask for a reset. This ends up hurting his overall efficiency, as 31 percent of his shots came within the final seven seconds of the shot clock (compare that to 16 percent for Siakam, 17 percent for Lowry, 18 percent for Leonard) and he converted just 34 percent of those attempts.

In terms of playmaking, VanVleet is mostly average. He is willing, but not particularly inventive. He makes most of the basic reads, but rarely does he go off script. One particular area of weakness is the pocket pass — the pick-and-pop between Lowry and Serge Ibaka is easy money, but those looks just don’t come with VanVleet. Granted, this is something that Lowry also struggled with early in his career, and he gradually solved it in time to become one of the best playmakers in the league. Like anyone, VanVleet will improve with time.

Defensively, VanVleet has already made the most of his physical limitations. For what he lacks in height, he makes up for in heart. VanVleet was entrusted with the impossible assignment of checking Stephen Curry in the Finals, which highlighted one of his many strengths on that end. VanVleet is quick laterally, shows great awareness, and is strong enough to cut off his man. VanVleet doesn’t have the height to challenge, but he is in the right position and he scraps like hell to be in every play.

VanVleet also has an acute sense for when to show help and dig into players in the post. Despite having the shortest wingspan on the team, VanVleet was second to only Leonard in deflections per minute, which is a testament to his anticipation and competitiveness. Again, there’s not much he can do in certain matchups, but VanVleet is mostly a positive on defense.

VanVleet is a legend in Toronto — even his newborn is heralded — but it doesn’t stop there. When you neutralize Curry and score 12 points in the fourth on the road to close out the Finals in lieu of a labored Leonard, people tend to notice.

“I think the respect I’ve been getting from my peers and from opposing teams and franchises and GMs around the league over the last few years has grown, I think that people are starting to see it a little bit,” VanVleet said.

Take incoming rookie guard Terence Davis Jr., who drew immediate comparisons to VanVleet as another undrafted guard hoping to make waves. Davis was miserable on draft night, but he was inspired by a video of VanVleet from his own draft night in 2016 where he assured a crowd of friends and family that he would still crack the league. Since Davis signed with the Raptors, VanVleet has made an effort to take him under his wing and show him the ropes, as the two shared tips on how to create offense in the NBA over a recent dinner. VanVleet has always shown great leadership, and it’s appreciated by his teammates.

VanVleet is exactly the type that lottery teams swing for. He’s young enough to fit a rebuilding timeline, yet experienced enough to deliver consistency and contribute as a tone-setter. Next year’s free agency figures to be fairly tame as compared to the high-stakes game of musical chairs that was this past summer, but there should be a robust market for VanVleet. The Knicks, for example, have upwards of $70 million in cap room and have no long-term solution at point guard. Minnesota is also a sensible fit, as they’re barren at point guard and have roughly $20 million to spend. With some minor maneuvering, the Bulls can also open $20 million in cap room to bring VanVleet home and solve their issues at the point.

All things equal, VanVleet would prefer if the Raptors just came correct. Speaking at a promotional event a few weeks back, VanVleet gushed about the bond he shares with the city of Toronto, and spoke of the city and organization as somewhere he can call home for a “long time.”

"It's just good energy both ways. And it was a fit that just worked. I found this to be somewhere that I can live for a long time, and I think that this city has embraced me and my family, and those things don't go unnoticed,” VanVleet said with a smile. “It's been a great fit since Day 1."

Jun 2, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) fouls Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the fourth quarter in game two of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. The Golden State Warriors won 109-104. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 2, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) fouls Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) during the fourth quarter in game two of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. The Golden State Warriors won 109-104. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Some of this will just sort itself out. If VanVleet refines his approach to make quicker decisions and become more efficient, the Raptors will pony up. And whether that’s in a bench role or as a starter for now, the onus is on him to first reach the next level.

There will be plenty of chances in the season ahead. Nurse insists that his starting lineup will be fluid, and VanVleet is consistently mentioned as an option to start alongside the established trio of Lowry, Siakam, and Marc Gasol. There’s competition from the likes of Norman Powell and OG Anunoby, but ultimately, VanVleet should draw plenty of starts. Size becomes an issue with Lowry and VanVleet sharing the floor, but it’s undeniably effective, which is why that pairing will likely close the majority of games regardless of who starts.

And realistically, it’s not entirely up to VanVleet. If Lowry continues to regress heading into his age-34 season, the Raptors have little choice but to retain VanVleet. With Delon Wright now in Dallas, the Raptors don’t have another viable option at point guard. Davis is being groomed as a lead guard — a role that he was only first introduced to last season at Ole Miss — but even an optimistic timeline calls for at least one or two more years of experience. Unless there’s an unforeseen trade, the starting point guard role should fall to VanVleet in time, and for his part, he’s willing to be patient.

“I’m not going to hurt our team with my own ambition in trying to out-do people and belittle my teammates, so if they want me to start, I’ll start, and if they don’t then I’ll be the best bench player I can be,” he said.

Provided that VanVleet makes a few key improvements — quicker decisions with the ball, better finishing around the rim, and more ability to create for others — he should be in line to double his current salary of $9 million. Malcolm Brogdon went for $21.5 million per year to the Pacers, Terry Rozier signed for $18.9 million with Charlotte, and Ricky Rubio inked a $17 million annual contract with Phoenix. Even Wright, who was consistently behind VanVleet in the Raptors’ rotation, signed for $14.5 million per year to be a secondary playmaker next to Luka Doncic. The money will definitely be there for VanVleet.

For the Raptors, it’s not an immediate concern. The goal should be to have a solid core in place, along with a maximum cap slot open for 2021, and under that strategy there is a path to accommodating a reasonable rate for VanVleet, even after re-signing Siakam for the maximum, giving Lowry a legacy deal, and even retaining Marc Gasol for half his current salary. So for now, the focus for both VanVleet and the Raptors should be to keep improving, and the rest will work itself out.

“I’m gonna do a good job of keeping everything in perspective. ” VanVleet said. “As long as you keep the team first, everything else will work itself out.”

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