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Fred VanVleet is suddenly an important piece for the Raptors

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Despite coming in well under the radar, Fred VanVleet has played his way into Toronto’s rotation, and then some.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

All Fred VanVleet ever needed was an opportunity. And he’s received it with this year’s edition of the Toronto Raptors. The undersized and overlooked guard out of Wichita State has solidified himself as a key rotation player for the Raptors’ second unit this season. This is no small achievement, as the Raps have one of the league’s top second units.

VanVleet’s trajectory in reaching the NBA and establishing himself as a legitimate talent hasn’t been easy. The Rockford, Illinois native has come a very long way.

Coming out of high school, VanVleet was not highly recruited due to his diminutive size and the fact that he stuck with his local high school rather than transferring to one of Chicago’s powerhouse programs. As a result, he signed with a rebuilding Wichita State. He played four successful seasons with the Shockers and was one of the main reasons for the program’s improvement, highlighted by an improbable Final Four run in 2014’s March Madness. VanVleet fuelled the run. He was the Shockers’ best player and leader, averaging 10.3 points per game over his collegiate career and finishing as Wichita State’s all-time leader in assists (637), steals (225), and assist-to-turnover ratio (3.08).

Despite his accomplishments, VanVleet was barely a six-footer in a 2016 NBA draft filled with taller, flashier guards. He went undrafted, but didn’t stay available for long. Masai Ujiri and his crack scouting staff pounced quickly, signing the free agent to a Summer League contract. VanVleet impressed so much with his Summer League play that Ujiri offered the point guard a two-year, two-way contract before the summer season ended.

VanVleet made his NBA debut for the Raptors on November 9th, 2016 against Oklahoma City. It was a inauspicious start: 26 seconds of garbage time in a blowout win. But it signalled that Dwane Casey and the Raps were intrigued by his potential. VanVleet had unexpectedly beaten out several players to earn the 15th spot on the roster. But he was fourth on the depth chart at point guard, which meant practicing hard and watching game action.

As FVV’s first season progressed, his playing time increased marginally. Most of this was at the end of games already clearly decided, and he only average 7.9 minutes a game and 2.9 points per game for the campaign. Such a small role limited his ability to showcase his potential.

The current season began much of the same way 2016-2017 went, even though VanVleet had moved up to third on the depth chart with the summer trade of Cory Joseph. October saw him average only 11.7 minutes per game, again mostly at the end of games. But everything changed for him in New Orleans on November 15th. Third year guard Delon Wright dislocated his right shoulder, thrusting VanVleet into the Raptors back-up point guard role.

Unsurprisingly, VanVleet’s playing time over the next month almost doubled to 20.9 minutes per game. More importantly, he was now playing in key situations throughout each contest. The increased role made all the difference. In the 12-game span that Wright was out, VanVleet average 9.2 point and 3.9 assist per game. His numbers and his play proved to the organization that he was capable of running the second unit effectively.

The two characteristics that impressed the most were VanVleet’s decisiveness and ability to move the ball quickly and with authority. When him at the helm, the second unit consistently moves into its sets very early in the shot clock, opening up options and pressuring the defence. With second units generally made up of less skilled and less confident players, this decisiveness puts the Raptors’ bench in better spots to succeed.

Wright’s return from injury hasn’t stunted VanVleet’s growth. Since he’s been back FVV’s minutes haven’t dipped that significantly. Moreover, the duo often play alongside one another. They’ve shown excellent — and probably unexpected — chemistry together.

Maybe the biggest surprise has been VanVleet’s defense. Because of his size, he should be a liability but he isn’t. He is an absolutely tenacious defender with quick feet and active hands. And his anticipation leads him to take charges much like the master, Kyle Lowry. VanVleet’s has drawn a respectable four offensive charges this season and is showing some of Lowry’s pitbull-like qualities.

Despite his strong performance, VanVleet still has room to grow. His fundamentals are excellent, and his confidence and comfort level are on the rise with the increased responsibilities. This confidence has extended to his shooting. He’s gone from taking 2.6 three’s per game through December, to putting up 3.7 since January. And VanVleet is shooting an incredible 48.5 percent from deep in the new year. His overall point totals also show his progression: In October he averaged 2.7 points per game, in November 7.1, in December 6.1 and 10.9 since the beginning of January. In the mid-month contest against Golden State, he played the game’s entire pivotal stretch run, hitting a late three to draw the Raps close.

Fred VanVleet has grabbed his opportunity with both hands, proving in the process that he is a legitimate NBA point guard. As the season unfolds, it will be interesting to see how his game continues to evolve. While he is unlikely to maintain his current three-point percentage, if he shows that he is an elite shooter he will carve out an even greater role than he has now. Still, VanVleet’s decision-making, leadership and tenacious defense are almost certain to keep him firmly in the Raptors’ rotation for the foreseeable future.