Through all the pre-game hype videos at the Raptors home opener on Wednesday — the Kardi singalongs, the palpable joy of seeing Canada’s basketball team back in, well, Canada — you could feel the absence of Kyle Lowry. That much was obvious.
Lowry and the Raptors have been so synonymous with each other under this unprecedented generation of success, one Toronto is tentatively moving on from in the early stages of this season. Lowry’s attitude constantly pushed the team to success when it looked like none was possible. Even last year, with a pandemic raging and the team limping through a season in Tampa, Lowry still found a way to have multiple middle-fingers-up-classic-Kyle-Lowry moments.
This isn’t a player preview for Kyle Lowry, though. It’s for the guy who’s generally thought of as taking his place as the team’s leader.
Fred VanVleet has large shoes to fill this season, and that pressure might be enough to cave a lot of players. With five years of NBA experience, though — coming off his best statistical season to date in 2020-21, averaging 19.6 points, 6.3 assists, and 1.7 steals per game — VanVleet isn’t shying away from the spotlight in Toronto. OG Anunoby may be the number one option and Pascal Siakam may be the All-Star soon to return as the team’s top iso player, but through a combination of voice and basketball position, this is VanVleet’s team for the foreseeable future.
He understands where the team is at too. This won’t be a 2019-20 situation, where a collection of veterans can grind and push each other, with a collective understanding of what it takes to win in the NBA. This is an incredibly young team who’re going to give a lot of run to players like Scottie Barnes, Dalano Banton, and Precious Achiuwa.
In an interview with TSN’s Josh Lewenberg, VanVleet recognized his role as shepherd.
“For me as a point guard, [I’m] just focusing on the growth of the guys, which guys need to get where, and just trying to be a part of that process,” VanVleet said. “If [we’re not a championship team right now] then we’ve still gotta build it up and I still gotta hold myself and my teammates to a high standard because that’s the best way to grow. But at the same time, it’s just realizing that every mistake isn’t the end of the world. It’s a weird dynamic because when you’re chasing a championship the way you deal with things is totally different than when you’re not. So, it’ll be a new experience, but for me, the only way I know how to do it is to go try to win every game possible and figure out what happens from there.”
So this season, VanVleet’s job is finding out where his skillset best fits among this experimental roster.
The first thing he’ll need to understand is that he’s not Kyle Lowry, and that if the team is going to run more offence through Anunoby and Barnes, that VanVleet is going to need to change where he finds his opportunities — hopefully shading more to the off-ball star that blossomed during the Raptors’ title run in 2019.
In the season opener versus Washington, you saw on the first play what Fred can bring. After winning the tip, VanVleet caught the ball on a swing from Goran Dragic, catching a soft weak side defence and draining a deep three. That understanding of NBA defences and where the mushy spots are will be key.
It also means — on this version of the Raptors — that he doesn’t always need to be creating driving lanes, something Lowry would often do in his prime. VanVleet doesn’t have the same kind of rim running game as Lowry, which often resembled a bowling ball in a china shop, bouncing off bigs at high-velocity angles, creating a layup or a foul where one didn’t seem possible.
Rather, VanVleet would be better served developing a steady floater, or attacking from the weak side when one of the bigger Raptors is the primary option. On a team where anyone and everyone will be bringing up the ball, and where opposing teams don’t have as many shooters to honour while they pack the paint on defence, VanVleet will need to adapt his game.
And, of course, Fred needs to make his three-point shots. His percentage took a dip in Tampa, from 39.0% to 36.6% on just over two more attempts per game (6.9 to 9.2). This seems like normal regression for depression, if I can use the term, considering how miserable everyone was in Tampa. If VanVleet can get back to sniffing 40% — taking more open threes at the end of the shot clock and less forces on limited action — the Raptors’ starting units are going to thrive. The chemistry he can build with Scottie Barnes is super intriguing too, as the rookie has already shown the ability to find the open man in traffic.
More esoterically, Fred VanVleet’s role on the Raptors this season is to calm the waters. As one of just a few members who were there when the team won it all in 2018-19, VanVleet understands pressure situations and how to succeed through them. With a large swath of raw talent, Toronto is going to be up against these difficult moments a lot this season.
Up until last year, Kyle Lowry was always the guy who would get mad, get a bucket, and right the ship. Now that falls to Fred, and even though his game is miles apart from his mentor, there’s no question he can handle the job of leading the Raptors on and off the court.