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Fred VanVleet is playing for more than just a title

It’s no secret that Toronto’s Fred VanVleet has had to work a lot harder than most to get to where he is today. With nothing guaranteed just yet, here’s what’s on the line for FVV as he prepares for the NBA’s restart.

NBA: Phoenix Suns at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The restart of the NBA season is a continued chance at a title defense for the Raptors. But for Fred VanVleet, it represents even more than that. For him, everything is on the line.

Over the years, the 6’0” guard has not only become familiar with adversity, he has embraced it. VanVleet’s arrival in Toronto was almost a foreshadowing of events, as he introduced himself to the fanbase after nabbing the Raptors’ 15th and final roster spot in his first season.

VanVleet has had to prove himself from day one.

Earning His Stripes

Fast forward four years. Today, VanVleet is considered a crafty and tenacious veteran player who leaves opposing coaches stumbling for their clipboards at his best. If you paid attention to basketball in Toronto, then none of this was surprising to you. Fans have been itching not only for VanVleet to emerge as a rising star in the league, but for the NBA to accept him as such.

Still, gaining recognition is a painful process. In VanVleet’s case, he announced his name to the world after averaging 16 points and 3 assists in wins against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. He then went on to post 14 points per game against the Warriors in the NBA Finals — while defending Steph Curry — and shockingly (depending on who you ask) earning himself one Finals MVP vote from Hall of Famer Hubie Brown.

If VanVleet hadn’t arrived yet, there was no question he had now.

In somewhat comical fashion, much of that success was attributed to the birth of his son, Fred. Jr., which just so happened to coincide with VanVleet’s emergence in the playoffs. Riddled with stress at the time, VanVleet’s performance dipped massively through the second round leading into the Conference Finals. He explained then that he hadn’t felt relief or purpose in his game up until his son’s birth, which resulted in a flurry of three-pointers, and a confidence with no end in sight. See? Adversity.

A year later, and all of that feels like the distant past; but the stress has re-emerged, only from different factors this time.

The Importance of Family

After spending the past three and a half months with his long-time girlfriend Shontai Neal, his two-year old daughter, Sanaa, and Fred Jr., the prospect of separation in the bubble has already taken its toll on the Raptors guard.

“Spending every second of every day with them was new for all of us, and it was a blessing in disguise” VanVleet explained to Shams Charania in a recent interview with Stadium. “Obviously, it was unfortunate circumstances, but that time was precious, I don’t know if I’ll ever get that again.”

If things go to plan for the Raptors in the post-season, VanVleet won’t see his loved ones for another three months with the option of family visitation after the first round of the playoffs — two months following the start of the bubble — and possibly limited to only three guests each.

“I don’t know if they’re going to make the trip to come visit when they allow families, but who knows. It was a part of it, and it was tough, and I take a lot of pride in being a father, and family is probably the most important thing to me so that was definitely a tough decision to make.

“Thank God for Facetime.”

Being On the Right Side of History

Despite the separation, VanVleet has made clear his decision to play, even after the flurry of social justice and Black Lives Matter protests that continue to take shape across America, and the rest of the world.

After arriving to the bubble at Walt Disney World, VanVleet was candid in his reasoning to play. Weighing the pros and cons, the Rockford, Illinois native made it clear that he had no intention of leaving any money on the table, but reiterated that there was work going on behind the scenes to use this platform to its fullest extent.

It’s hard to argue with any of that considering how the Raptors and VanVleet have already used their platform since they’ve arrived in Florida.

The team first showed up in buses covered in Black Lives Matter vinyl and have since sported the same messaging on their shirts. Weeks later VanVleet lent his voice to the Raptors most recent cause, a social media campaign encouraging Americans who live in Canada to vote in the upcoming election. And just a week ago it was announced that he had partnered with American Express in an effort to support shopping small to aid local businesses who have felt increasing financial burdens due to the pandemic.

All that in the span of the past four weeks. That’s a busy year for some.

In his interview with Charania, VanVleet was asked what he plans to wear on the back of his jersey. He revealed that he submitted a message to the league, but it was ultimately shut down — sadly, he did not reveal what the proposed message was.

Still, VanVleet’s commitment clearly exceeds the court, and goes beyond the PR moves circumscribed by the league; so, what else is there to overcome?

Well, VanVleet is currently in a contract year.

The Expiring Contract

After an impressive second year with the Raptors, VanVleet was named a finalist for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award at the end of the 2017-18 season. As a result, he subsequently inked a two-year, $18 million contract with the Raptors. It was a typical “bet on yourself” move from VanVleet, but now that deal is set to expire at the end of this season, the weirdest one in some time.

To help his case, VanVleet is currently averaging career-highs in points, assists, total rebounds, and minutes per game. He’s also a league leader in steals per game, ranking fourth with 1.9 — which also happens to be a career-high.

But the numbers haven’t come without setbacks. VanVleet’s increase in career totals are due in part to an increase in game mileage, which currently ranks him eighth in the NBA in minutes per game with 35.8. The increased wear-and-tear on the undersized guard, who seems to be sent sprawling to the floor multiple times per game, has ultimately led injuries.

Worrying About Injuries

In total, VanVleet has missed 16 games this past season from three separate incidents — a right knee contusion against the 76ers in December that needed five games to recover, a hamstring strain only two weeks later vs. the Nets that kept him out for an additional five, and he spent the last six games before the season’s suspension sidelined due to a sprained shoulder against the Bucks in late February.

During much of that time Kyle Lowry carried the bulk of the load — the only Raptor with more minutes per game, ranking third in the league with 36.3. That continues to be a concern too.

With Lowry currently signed to a one-year extension, it’s hard not to imagine the Raptors front office expecting the opposite in terms of their circumstances, e.g. VanVleet carrying the load as father time catches up to Lowry. There’s no doubt in the young guard’s ability, but the bubble only gives him much more to prove.

Regardless, the Raptors continue to funnel minutes VanVleet’s way when he’s available, showing no pause in their faith. He’s not expected to knock down clutch shot after clutch shot like he did in Game 6 of last year’s Finals, but you can expect VanVleet to control the pace, set up on the perimeter, and drive the lane effortlessly.

And now that VanVleet is fully healthy again, the stage feels set in a big way

A title defense, being a father over Facetime, a new contract looming, and being on the right side of history — this is no field trip for VanVleet. These three months in the NBA bubble could prove to be the toughest of his career thus far, but maybe he prefers it that way.