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Player Review: Fred VanVleet became Toronto’s leader through tough times

VanVleet had a tough task for this past season, but he did what he could to keep the Raptors going. Here’s what he did, and what could be next.

Toronto Raptors v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

The Raptors had a bad 2020-21 season. They finished 27-45 and missed the playoffs — and it definitely felt at times like they’d rather have not been playing, such was the scene in Tampa as it became a year-long drudge away from home. The year for Fred VanVleet was not that much different from this general mood. Despite continuing to grow his game and role with the Raptors, VanVleet had a bit of a tough year too, spending most of the second half of the season dealing with various health issues — including recovery from COVID-19.

Let’s take a look back at what VanVleet was still able to achieve in 2020-21, despite everything else happening around that cursed season. And let’s look ahead a bit to where he stands now in the Raptors organization.

The Key Raptor

Because of how the NBA is these days, an undersized point guard with below-average athleticism (e.g. one who can’t dunk) is never going to be the centre of attention. When we think on the ceiling of the Raptors, we tend to dwell on do-it-all forwards Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby — and with good reason. If those two can continue to expand their respective games, the Raptors will continue to get better. So then what of VanVleet?

Much like Kyle Lowry, VanVleet’s role on the Raptors has become something of the ultimate floor-raiser. That much became clear in 2020-21. Obviously, Lowry is still the king of this in Toronto (and perhaps the league), but VanVleet has been gradually taking on more and more responsibility in this regard. And what’s more, he’s been able to adapt his play from game to game depending on what the Raptors need. It’s how he can explode for a franchise-record 54 points on one night and also put up those low-scoring, high-assist nights — a Lowry specialty these days — that get Toronto to another win.

Like the rest of the squad, VanVleet had to muscle through a brutal March. He missed the team’s first five games of that month (all losses) and was unable to turn Toronto’s fortunes around as they went on to lose eight of their next nine. Now, it’s hard to be too down on this extreme rough patch — the Raptors and VanVleet were reeling from just about every health problem a squad could have. So yes, while there are limits to VanVleet’s game, let’s be fair about what’s humanly possible in such circumstances. At times, it was remarkable VanVleet was out there at all after recovering from COVID-19 while still putting up some 40-minute nights and being as dogged on defense as he ever has been.

To be clear: talent is still the most important thing in the NBA. And there are likely always going to be things VanVleet can’t do (we’ll expand on that below). But every team with aspirations of greatness needs a rock. And as we’ve seen from VanVleet, even when he was more inexperienced in the NBA, even when he looked out of his element (early in his career, early in the 2019 playoffs), nothing seems to shake him from his belief in himself and in his team. The Raptors will look to acquire and develop more talented players than VanVleet, but his role as the team’s leader will continue to be valuable.

The Challenges

So what are VanVleet’s limitations?

To a certain extent, this part is relatively easy to summarize. VanVleet’s offensive game, by dint of his height, is still — and perhaps always will be — limited. In 2020-21, he shot 39 percent from the field on an increased number of attempts (a career-high 16.7 per game) which is... not great for a starting point guard in the NBA. When VanVleet looked unstoppable this past season, he was usually doing two things at a high level: hittings 3s — he shot 37 percent from deep on a career-high 9.2 attempts per game — and finishing at the rim — which was far more up-and-down from game to game. The former is a huge boon for the Raptors, the latter is like a nice bonus.

VanVleet has the strength and craftiness to make those attempts at the rim worth it, however, even if it feels like bad luck sometimes makes him seem much worse at the rim than he is over the course of a season. The thing for him to continue to work on, though, is his shooting from the in-between area, the part of the court between the three-point line and the rim. While this is still seen as the least efficient shot to take in the NBA, the Raptors need VanVleet to be able to get open in the pick-and-pop or have a bag of floater-type shots to dip into when going against strong rim protection (or when his three-point shot isn’t falling). VanVleet showed more of that this year — particularly with mid-range jumpers — but it could be time for a more serious step next year.

What’s Ahead

Whatever happens with Lowry and the no. 4 pick will determine what VanVleet ends up doing next season. If Lowry walks and the Raptors select another guard (like Jalen Suggs), then VanVleet will have firm control over the team and take further ownership of his mentor role for the incoming prospect (and sophomore Malachi Flynn).

If the Raptors retain Lowry and/or do something wild like trade the pick for a more established player, then 2021-22 will be more of a holding pattern for VanVleet. In truth, Toronto doesn’t need him to do a lot more than he’s doing (or trying to do) now. If VanVleet keeps working on his efficiency on offense, keeps making the right play-making reads, and keeps up with his stellar defense, then that’s all anyone could really ask for. As has been established by now, even through tough times, it’s hard to bet against Fred VanVleet on the Raptors.