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NBA: Toronto Raptors-Media Day

Player Preview: Fred VanVleet, the hero Toronto deserves

Fred VanVleet has consistently come up big when called on. Can he still thrive in a more unorthodox role?

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Fred VanVleet has done everything that’s been asked of him.

In his rookie season, the Toronto Raptors already had an All-Star backcourt — Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan — with a championship-winning guard, Cory Joseph, and a promising sophomore, Norm Powell, on the bench. Fred had to bide his time, put in work in the G League (D League, at the time), and wait for his turn with the big boys. He answered the call by helping lead the Raptors 905 to their first championship!

In the championship season, he filled in the remaining checkboxes required to lift the Larry OB: he nailed clutch shots when his higher profile teammates drew more attention, played elite defense on the opposing team’s star, and became the proverbial X-factor (the birth of his son, and Fred’s subsequent breakout performance is the stuff of legends).....check, check, check.

When the G.R.O.A.T. took his talents to South Beach, Fred took on the impossible task of replacing Lowry’s leadership role. On the court, he was nothing short of amazing. He became one of the deadliest outside shooters in the league (more on this later), took his defensive peskiness to an elite level, and parlayed his excellent two-way-play into his first All-Star appearance. Off the court, though, is where VanVleet overtook Lowry’s value.

The scholarship that carries his name is dedicated to Black and Indigenous students. Fred doubled down on the award by providing mentorship to the recipient.

Seriously, this man can do no wrong.

Here’s the rub: if the Raptors expect to take another step forward from their (surprise!) over-achieving 2021-22 season, Fred VanVleet will likely have to do less!

Before we jump into why less is more with Steady Freddie, let’s first look into the “more.”

Fred the Dead-eye Shooter

Here’s the list of players who have averaged more 3-point shots from 25+ feet:

  • Steph Curry

Here’s the list of players who have made more 3-point shots (on average) from 25+ feet:

  • Steph Curry

It’s not just that VanVleet has extended his range, he’s getting his threes in different ways.

On Catch-and-Shoot threes, Fred ranked 5th in the NBA (minimum 100 made C&S threes) in 3-point FG% (43.3%). This may be his most important stat to track this season. Fred’s ability to knock it down from outside works two-fold — VanVleet’s defender has to think twice about doubling the dribbler and his ability to re-locate after an offensive rebound (you know, the area where the Raptors ranked 2nd in the NBA) can leave defenses scrambling and eventually provide a mismatch for Toronto’s plethora of long wings. There’s actually a third benefit, but that deserves its own section. For now, let’s continue with the other area beyond the arc where Fred excels.

For a Raptors offense that can often run stagnant, VanVleet’s ability to hit pull-up 3s has been a necessary tool for Toronto. His averages — 1.7 pull-up 3s on 5.2 attempts (33.1%) — are on par with some of the best pull-up shooters in the league: James Harden (1.9/5.8), Jayson Tatum (1.7/5.0), Paul George (1.6/5.1).

So, whether it’s off-ball or as the traditional Point Guard bringing up the ball, Fred VanVleet is one of Toronto’s best (and sometimes only) outside threat.

Fred the Jedi Defender

Fred VanVleet must be pulling some kind of Jedi Mind Trickery on the NBA. He’s about to enter his 7th NBA season and 4th full season as a bonafide starter. In his 3 prior seasons, he ranked 1st, 1st, and 2nd in deflections per game. When will opponents pay attention to where Fred is on the defensive end?

Whether or not it’s by design, good luck finding the smallest player on the court amidst a group of long flailing arms.

If you’re looking for further validation of his defensive excellence, take another look at the league leaders in deflections per game last season. 8 of the top 10 had wingspans of 6’9 or longer (shoutout to O.G. Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr.). Even Alex Caruso’s wingspan (6’6) is significantly longer than Fred’s (6’1). VanVleet’s ability to cause deflections despite his physical limitations AND only committing 2.5 fouls per game is truly remarkable.

Fred the Head-High Leader

We’ve established that VanVleet perfectly fits the mold of a “3-and-D” player that thrives in today’s NBA. What else can he do to help the Raptors over-achieve again and push closer towards championship contention again?

The answer to that question appears to lie in his workload. Fred ranked 2nd in minutes in the NBA — trailing only Pascal Siakam. He also ranked 2nd in total games where he logged at least 40 minutes (21) — also trailing Siakam (30... let’s not do this again, Nicky). Missing the first month of the season may have allowed Pascal to log as many minutes, but for Fred, the workload started to wear him down. By the time the playoffs started, VanVleet was a shell of the man that carried the team in Siakam’s absence.

It’s easy for critics to point at the minutes and exclaim, “Play him less.” But with Fred, it’s more complicated than that. Reducing Fred’s minutes will have a negative impact on the team because he’s essential to everything that works in Nick Nurse’s system. VanVleet’s on/off metrics rank very favourably in points per possession (76th percentile) and effective field goal percentage (82nd percentile) on offense — AND defense (72nd & 82nd respectively).

While I expect a slight reduction in minutes, I don’t expect it to be that dramatic. There’s been a major shift in minutes played in the NBA. Gone are the days of superstars regularly logging 45 minutes. Load Management is here to stay, baaabbbyyyyy! Siakam and VanVleet may have led the league in minutes, but their averages were one of the lowest in league history (compared to other minutes leaders).

VanVleet has spent the off-season working on his stamina and endurance to avoid another breakdown in April. However, the best way to save his best for last is for Nurse to take the ball out of Fred’s hands.

Last season, there were 23 players who averaged at least 13 drives per game. Fred VanVleet ranked dead last with a 40.2 FG% (LaMelo Ball was the next closest at 44.4%) and 2nd-last in drawing fouls. He was obviously driving with the intent to kick out (pass percentage was the highest of anyone in that group). How effective is passing out of drives when Fred’s the team’s best shooter?

Remember that 3rd benefit I foreshadowed in the Catch-and-Shoot section? Fred’s ability to knock down threes off kickouts offers a new wrinkle to Nick Nurse’s offense. Siakam’s increased usage (read: more time with the ball in his hands) and Scottie Barnes’ emergence (yes, he is now listed as a Guard-Forward) can really open up the playbook and, hopefully, rid this team of stagnant offensive sets.

Pascal’s drives are the first key. The aforementioned list of frequent drivers? Siakam ranked 6th in both points per drive and field goal percentage. When he’s not driving to score, we already know how effective he is at finding the open man. With Fred presumably playing more off-ball, his best move would be to find a corner since he ranked in the 82nd percentile in shooting corner threes.

Scottie operates most effectively out of the post. Imagine what this kid can do with the ball in the low block? He could zip a pass to a cutting Anunoby or Siakam. He could find Gary or Fred creeping to an open spot beyond the arc. Heck, he could just shoot over the unlucky defender! The options are plenty but the fact remains: with the ball in either Siakam’s or Barnes’ hands, Fred should be able to make it rain from downtown while also saving his energy for maximum defensive peskiness!

Year after year, Fred VanVleet has been asked to wear different hats. Whether it’s leading the 905 to a championship, hitting pivotal threes during the NBA Championship run, or taking on the mantle as team leader after Lowry’s departure, Fred has always answered the call. This season, he’ll likely be asked to fill a different role. Do you really doubt he’ll do anything but succeed? Because Fred VanVleet is the hero Toronto deserves. It’s up to his coach and teammates to determine if it’s the one they need right now.

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