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Player Review: Fred VanVleet makes the leap

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From undrafted rookie to Sixth Man of the Year finalist, Fred VanVleet has become a big part of the Raptors’ future.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

“The intangibles that he brings, if you give him a shot, you’re going to fall in love with those intangibles and you’re going to find out when you work with him on a daily basis that he’s more gifted than you give him credit for physically ... He wants to win and does more to help you win than any player you could have ever imagined. It’s very rare when a player wants to win more than a coaching staff. He’s one of those rare players.”

Which coach said this of Fred VanVleet? Dwane Casey? Nick Nurse? Rex Kalamian? Jerry Stackhouse? No, no, no, and no. This was from coach at Wichita State, Gregg Marshall. Although the quote is a couple years old, the same words ring true today.

VanVleet has gone from throwing a draft party, despite knowing he wouldn’t get drafted, to being invited to the biggest NBA party (the Awards Show) as a Sixth Man of the Year finalist.

For the first 13 games of the season, VanVleet was playing a fairly similar role in his rookie campaign — one of the last off the bench, only playing extended minutes during blowouts. In game number 14, the first back-to-back of the season, Dwane Casey finally allowed him to break the 20-minute barrier and the rest, as they say, was history. The Raptors would go on to win 51 of their next 69 games (.739 winning%) with Steady Freddie captaining the league’s no. 2 five-man lineup (minimum 300 total minutes played).

The Good

Let’s start with the obvious: Fred VanVleet steered the ship for the NBA’s best bench lineup (by Net Rating). While there have been significant improvements in each of the Bench Broskis — C.J. Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, and Delon Wright — there’s no question the Shocker alum was the spark that lit the Bench Mob’s fire. He had a steady hand on offense (with a top 10 ranking in Assist/Turnover ratio), and was also a menacing force on defense, ranking 3rd behind Eric Gordon and Steph Curry in Net Rating.

There’s normally some diminishing returns when end-of-bench players get a boost in minutes, but that was not the case for VanVleet this season. While his minutes have more than doubled (from 7.9 to 20 per game), his shooting numbers went up across the board — FG%, TS%, 3PT%, eFG%.

His ability to knock down shots beyond the arc — FVV ranked among the league leaders in catch-and-shoot threes — combined with his aforementioned ability to protect the rock, opened up the playbook for coach Casey. VanVleet was routinely inserted with the starters (replacing OG Anunoby) to close out games. In late-game situations, opponents would double whenever the ball was in the hands of either Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan. This would just open up VanVleet, an ideal outlet who was well-equipped to take advantage of the subsequent 4-on-3. Whether it was as another shooter or playmaker, Steady Freddie was the perfect complement to the All-Star duo’s drive-and-kicks.

His impact carried over into the playoffs, despite playing through an injury (more on this below), as he ranked no. 1 in Offensive Rating during the playoffs (min. 15 minutes/game).

Raptors fans have endured years of bad draft nights that included under-whelming lottery picks, failed projects, and missed opportunities. Masai Ujiri has more than made up for it over the last three drafts. Looking back at the 2016 Draft, here’s a list of the top performers, based on career VORP: 1) Ben Simmons; 2) Jakob Poeltl; 3) Pascal Siakam; 4) Fred VanVleet.

And again, FVV wasn’t even drafted.

The Bad

When you’re a man of VanVleet’s physical stature, it’s easy to point to his height as a deterrent to success. But, as I’ve noted above, that simply hasn’t been the case. Instead, I’m going to deflect the “bad” to former coach, Dwane Casey. His decision to play the entire roster on regular minutes in the final game of the season when health was the no. 1 priority, was ridiculous at the time and downright asinine after-the-fact.

We all know what happened next. VanVleet collided with Bam Adebayo in the fourth quarter, injuring his right shoulder, and causing him to play at less than 100% (or not at all) during the playoff run. Sliding Doors moment in Game 1 vs. Cleveland: FVV probably hits one of those the game-winning threes. Or doesn’t have his worst shooting game of the season from beyond the arc (1-of-7 from three) in a buzzer-beating Game 3 loss in Cleveland. Ah, what could have been.

The Grade: A

I’m not sure what else VanVleet could have done to get an A+, so consider this a downgrade based on a lot of nitpicking — the missed Game 1 buzzer-beater, the impending restricted free agency cost, another chip on his shoulder for continued improvement. Fred has exceeded every expectation we had going into the season. His work ethic, playmaking abilities, and high basketball IQ will surely make him a scorching hot commodity who could fit into any team’s system. Ujiri will have to work some serious magic to keep arguably the third most important player on the team, while managing a tight salary cap situation.

Whatever the cost, VanVleet has earned it. He’s been a winner throughout his basketball life — All-State first-team selection in Illinois; Missouri Valley Conference player of the year with Wichita State (twice!); and D-League champion with the Raptors 905. That kind of pedigree and fire is what can carry the Raptors into the post-DeMar DeRozan/Kyle Lowry era.