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2018-19 Player Preview: Fred VanVleet, the bench leader

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Once an over-performing underdog, Fred VanVleet is now a key player for the Raptors, with expectations to match. Will he continue to meet the challenge of being Toronto’s bench leader?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Fred VanVleet was a revelation last season for the Toronto Raptors. The Wichita State walk-on literally came out of nowhere in his second season and proved emphatically that he belonged in the NBA. He did so by excelling almost every time he hit the floor, eventually emerging as Toronto’s key bench player as the season progressed.

Entering the third year of his career however, expectations will be much greater than ever before. FVV will be called upon to not only lead the second unit but also play the critical minutes deep into tight games that he was relied upon at the close out of last season. The little man will be expected to play a lot of big minutes. The question for many Raptors’ fans is whether VanVleet will be able to match, if not surpass, last years’ achievements. Here’s betting he will.

The 2017-18 campaign was a tale of two halves for VanVleet. He started off the season as the tenth or 11th player in Toronto’s rotation. His role was minimal, consisting mostly of garbage time with the odd couple of key minutes here and there to give Kyle Lowry and Delon Wright breathers or when the floor mix needed a bit of shaking up.

During the first three-months of the season FVV averaged 17.7 minutes a game, most of it irrelevant. His statistics reflected the lack of opportunity. From October to December, he averaged a paltry 5.9 points, 2.9 assists and 1.9 rebounds per game. His shooting was subpar too, at only 38 percent from two-point range and a modest 34 percent from deep.

VanVleet’s big chance came in late November when Delon Wright, who was immediately in front of him on the depth chart, dislocated his right shoulder. The injury would see him miss a dozen games, which obviously opened up more minutes — and especially more quality minutes — for VanVleet.

During this span, FVV showed flashes of his considerable potential, averaging 9.2 points and 3.9 assists per game. Most importantly, he earned then-coach Dwane Casey’s trust, which translated into still more playing time in important situations.

As the new year came, VanVleet‘s game gradually transformed as he gained both experience and confidence. The ups-and-downs of the early season gave way to a string of consistent performances. From January onward, he became the Raptors go-to player off the bench, which was becoming increasingly decisive in the team’s growing success.

As the regular season advanced, FVV’s role continued to flourish with the addition of crunch time minutes at the end of tight games. He averaged 10.8 points, 3.4 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game in 2018. He also grew into one of the Raptors’ most reliable three-point shooters, hitting 44.1 percent from the arc.

VanVleet’s emergence did not go unnoticed around the league. At season’s end he was selected as one of three candidates for the Sixth Man of the Year award — a remarkable feat for a player who was virtually unknown only a few months before.

As impressive as last year’s transformation was, VanVleet realizes that it is firmly in the past. So what’s in store for him for the upcoming campaign? Will he continue his astonishing emergence or regress to the trajectory that was expected of him prior to last year?

After signing his two-year $19 million contract, the Raptors are clearly betting that his second half success was no fluke. After all, the sample size of 42 games wasn’t that small, with VanVleet sustaining his excellent play for a full half-season.

His role should pick up where it left off — as the Raps’ leader off the bench. And he should have plenty of opportunities to shine yet again as the second unit looks to fill the crucial role it played in 2017-18. Many observers believe that the Raps will once again have the NBA’s best bench this season.

VanVleet is looking to continue his progression from the arc and should convert at around the 40-44 percent clip he did in the second half of last season. His shooting consistency will be central as head coach Nick Nurse’s new offense emphasizes more three-point shooting than under Casey.

Fred VanVleet should also have his sights set on the Sixth Man of the Year award this season. He came close last year on only half a season. It is entirely conceivable that he performs to the same standard or better over the entire upcoming campaign.

FVV will be pivotal to the Raptors success in 2018-19. There is no reason why he shouldn’t continue to excel, contributing to another Eastern Conference championship for Toronto, and hopefully that oh-so elusive trip to the NBA Finals.