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Player Preview: How will Fred VanVleet improve this season?

Now that he’s been paid, how will Fred VanVleet improve as he comes into his role as the Toronto Raptors’ point guard of the future?

Toronto Raptors v Boston Celtics - Game Six Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

With the NBA starting days before Christmas, everyone will be waiting for the man with the bag — no, not that man. I’m talking about Fred VanVleet, the man who just secured the 4-year, $85 million bag.

Although he started with the Raptors as an undrafted rookie out of Wichita State, you’d be more likely to find a frat party that serves hors d’oeuvres than you would a Raptors fan who thinks VanVleet isn’t worth every last penny. Smart franchises, however, do not pay for past performance. Fred VanVleet is being paid for what he can give to the team going forward, and that starts this season.

This year will almost certainly mark the start of Fred VanVleet’s transition to becoming the lead point guard in Toronto. Kyle Lowry is a free agent at the end of the season. Even if he returns to Toronto, he turns 35 in March and will need to start dialling back his role and minutes. VanVleet’s contract is evidence that the front office sees him as the present and future point guard of the Raptors.

To fully succeed in that role, VanVleet will need to fine-tune his game. He is already a versatile two-way player, but there are some small steps that he could take to put him at a consistent All-Star level.

Let’s start, however, with what he does well — the qualities that earned him the largest contract ever signed by an undrafted rookie. First things first, VanVleet can fill it up from deep. No individual skill is sought more by NBA teams than three-point shooting, and VanVleet does it well, does it a lot, and does it on the biggest stages.

VanVleet shot 40 percent from three this season, marking the third straight season that he has been with a percentage point of that mark. He shoots 42 percent from the corners, but even more impressively, he drains 39 percent of his above-the-break threes putting him in the 88th percentile of the NBA’s guards on those shots, per Cleaning the Glass. Throw in the fact that he is comfortable shooting a few feet behind the line, and VanVleet’s shooting is an important weapon in the Toronto Raptors’ offensive arsenal.

On the other end, VanVleet is an elite guard defender. Throw away all of the fancy terminology, statistics, and analysis for a moment and simply acknowledge this — it sucks to be guarded by VanVleet. Being guarded by Fred is like playing in front of a mirror, as his combination of preternatural anticipation and lateral movement allows him to stay in front of even the craftiest of guards. The only catch is that the mirror will reach out and take the ball if you get careless for even a moment.

VanVleet’s steal percentage of 2.2 puts him in the 91st percentile of NBA guards, according to Cleaning the Glass. His hands are constantly disruptive, reaching and poking without lunging or sacrificing his spot.

His most important defensive quality, however, is also the quality that has allowed him to make such a leap as a player — he cares. A lot. The look in his eye here is reserved solely for those with an innate competitive drive that they simply cannot shut off.

VanVleet is always engaged off-ball. Like Lowry, Fred is more than willing to sacrifice his body, and he never stops moving. He is the Raptors’ main defender at the point of attack, and his focus sets the tone for the entire defense.

His defense will remain solid, and three seasons of lights out shooting provide enough evidence that VanVleet’s numbers from deep are the norm.

Elsewhere on offense, however, VanVleet’s problems begin the moment he steps inside the three-point line. On a shot chart, if red shades delineate above average shooting and blue shows below average, Fred’s chart would look like a member of the Blue Man Group with the hair of Conan O’Brien. Outside the line he is scorching. Within it, he is often ice cold. He is like the inverse DeMar DeRozan.

The midrange is admittedly a small part of his game (and for the league at large). VanVleet uses it more as a late shot-clock prayer than a consistent source of offense — but as his offensive role increases as it is projected to, he may be forced into more of those situations. The biggest problem, of course, is his at-rim finishing. In every year VanVleet has been in the league, he has struggled to finish amongst the trees, shooting around 50 percent at the rim consistently.

Finishing in the restricted area was never going to be easy for VanVleet. He is only 6’0”, and he lacks the vertical athleticism that aids other small guards at the rim. To account for that, Fred could look to two other small guards who have been able to make a living at the rim despite their size, players like Kyrie Irving and his teammate Kyle Lowry.

Irving adeptly puts a little English on the ball so he can spin it in off the backboard from less-than ideal-angles. Lowry, as expected, is a little less elegant. He tends to contort his body midair for a better look at the cup. This works for Lowry because he is consistently willing to hit the floor after doing so. (Lowry is also a master at using his body on the ground to leverage his way into a good shot; it’s a useful skill for a small player.) If VanVleet can take some pages out of the books out of Irving and Lowry, he could take steps toward being an effective at-rim finisher.

In last season’s opener, VanVleet showed off both of those techniques, often going high off the glass to get his shot to fall.

For the bulk of last season, unfortunately, VanVleet continued to struggle from that range. Consistency, now, is the goal for this season.

The improvement of VanVleet’s off-the-dribble shooting could also be another injection of life into the Raptors’ offense. Of his three attempts per game of that kind last season, VanVleet averaged one make, for roughly a 33 percent success rate. For context: a slight uptick in volume and efficiency would put him closer to the Damien Lillard/Steph Curry tier of off-the-dribble three-point shooting.

If VanVleet’s finishing and off-the-dribble shooting improve, he instantly becomes a much more significant threat in the pick-and-roll. This would go a long way towards unclogging Toronto’s half-court offense, the key deficiency of last year’s team. He is already an efficient playmaker who takes care of the ball, averaging 6.6 assists per game last season on only 2.2 turnovers. With defenses keying on his scoring, those assist numbers could easily go up.

As stated before, VanVleet is already a well-rounded player, a point guard that would be an upgrade for more than half of the teams in the NBA. If he can improve in some key categories, however, he goes from high-quality starter to All-Star. With his shooting acumen, it is easy to see how his off-the-dribble game could develop this season. If he can combine that with improved finishing, he would have a strong inside-outside game. That would move VanVleet up an echelon as a player — and unlock a lot more for the Raptors via his pick-and-roll playmaking.

There is one other thing to keep in mind about the Raptors’ projections for VanVleet. These ideal improvements take into account the human element. They are betting on a person. Like Pascal Siakam, VanVleet has worked tirelessly to weed out the problems with his game. He has not given Toronto any reason to doubt his conviction. Yes, he got paid, but if you cite that as justification for VanVleet to stop improving, you simply have not been paying attention.