For three-and-a-half weeks, from May 20 through June 13, 2019, Fred VanVleet was the king of the world. His son Fred Jr. was born on the 20th; on the 21st, he scored 13 points (on 5-of-6 shooting) with six assists as the Raptors blew out the Milwaukee Bucks to even the Eastern Conference Finals at 2-2.
VanVleet averaged 16 ppg on .680 shooting over the final three games of that series as the Raptors knocked off the Bucks, then went on to average 14 ppg on .444 shooting in the NBA Finals, all while making Steph Curry miserable on the other end (and getting a tooth knocked out and a black eye in the process). In the clinching Game 6, he scored 22 points, including 12 in the pressure-packed fourth quarter, and became an NBA Champion.
Pretty damn good, right? So what can VanVleet do for an encore as he heads into his fourth season?
Role on the Team
This is one of the more interesting questions facing the Raptors as we head into the 2019-20 season. VanVleet was ostensibly Kyle Lowry’s backup last season, and played that role well. But he played even better as a starter: in 28 games, he posted a true shooting percentage of .567 (compared to .507 as a reserve) and a plus-minus of 15.7 (0.5 as a reserve). While you can argue that playing with better players, like Kawhi Leonard, helps boost those numbers, let’s not forget starters typically play against better players than bench players. And Fred’s usage rate as a starter was about the same as a reserve (18.3 vs. 18.0).
All which might indicate VanVleet is ready to start, and yet... Kyle Lowry is still here, obviously. Which leads to the next obvious question: Can VanVleet replace Danny Green in the starting lineup, as he did (very successfully) in the second half of games in the second half of the NBA Finals? VanVleet has played well in off-ball situations (alongside both Lowry and Delon Wright) where his shooting makes him a legitimate threat.
But starting Lowry and VanVleet together makes for an extremely small backcourt, and leaves a big hole on the bench, without a clear-cut backup point guard.
I suspect that we’ll see Fred in both roles this year, ultimately. Coach Nick Nurse has indicated his starting lineup will remain “fluid,” so depending on matchups, some nights we might see the Lowry-VanVleet backcourt, and some nights the team might need to be bigger.
For all the awesomeness VanVleet delivered over the final nine games of the playoffs, we can’t forget how sub-par he was in the first 15 games, where he averaged 4 ppg (!) on .256 shooting. While his play in the Philadelphia series is an outlier and largely based on that specific matchup, we’ve seen such streakiness throughout VanVleet’s career. After a slow start to last season, for example (8.6 ppg, 36% FG, -2.7+/-) Fred bounced back in the middle of November (11.1 ppg, 53% FG, +9.9 +/-); although the swings became less pronounced, he had up-and-down weeks all season (6 ppg on 28% shooting over five games at the beginning of December, 12.5 ppg on 45% the next five, for example).
While his size isn’t a skill he can work on, that reliability and consistent game-to-game performance on the offensive end is something Fred needs to improve.
Beyond that, VanVleet has room to improve as a playmaker as well. He still has a habit of over dribbling in the half court, and all-too-often misses his roll man on pick-and-rolls; I’m not sure if this is a lack of confidence in his ability to thread those passes or a lack of vision, but either way, it’s clear he still has plenty to learn from his mentor Kyle Lowry.
Whether it’s off the bench or as a starter, VanVleet will have a huge role for the Raptors this year; he’s one of their most important players and fulfills multiple needs (as a scorer, facilitator and defender), he’s proven he can play in high-leverage situations and he’s in a contract year. As a guy who’s consistently bet on himself (tm) and won, I fully expect VanVleet to relish this opportunity to do more, to play well, to improve on the areas above and earn an even bigger contract next summer.