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#pounditSaturday, February 4, 2023

Fred VanVleet setting himself up for big pay day in free agency

Fred VanVleet

The 2020 free agent class is noticeably devoid of perennial All-Stars and All-NBA performers. The class represents the proverbial calm before the storm, which will come when Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard could be on the market a year later. Despite the lack of stars in this year’s free agent class, there are still a number of under-the-radar contributors who will be available this summer. At the top of that list sits Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.

For the undrafted VanVleet, his journey to becoming one of the most sought-after players in the 2020 free agency class began last season during the Raptors championship run.

2019 Playoff Emergence

Every Finals run in NBA history produces players and moments with legacies that live eternally. The 2019 Toronto Raptors were no different. Kawhi Leonard’s series-winning shot in Game 7 that bounced the Philadelphia 76ers from the Eastern Conference semifinals has cemented its place as one of the most iconic shots in NBA history. Kyle Lowry rewrote the narrative of his career after enduring years of playoff disappointments by delivering Toronto its first NBA championship. Pascal Siakam emerged as an up-and-coming star through his smothering defense and improved offensive game. Somewhere on the list of moments and players is VanVleet’s story.

Before the 2019 playoffs, VanVleet was arguably most famous for his uncanny resemblance to rapper/Raptors hype man/Doris Burke Fan Club President: Drake. VanVleet’s 2019 playoff run proclaimed to the world he’s no doppelganger.

VanVleet’s performance will be remembered primarily because of its volatility. Over a 14-game stretch, starting in the second game of the Raptors first-round matchup against the Orlando Magic, and spanning to Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, VanVleet shot just 21.7 percent from the field and 14.3 percent from 3. For over half of the Raptors’ postseason run, VanVleet was a shell of himself, failing to record more than 10 points once. But when the Raptors needed him most, VanVleet delivered. After falling behind 2-1 to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, VanVleet averaged 16 points per game on 68 percent field goal shooting while knocking down 14 of his 17 3-point attempts in Games 4-6. The Raptors won all three games.

VanVleet’s hot touch continued through the Finals, leading the Raptors with 16 made threes for the series. Despite coming off the bench in all six games, VanVleet played the fourth-most minutes on the team, establishing his value through his shot-making and elite defense. Tasked with stopping Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, VanVleet played Dellavedova-like Finals defense, continually hounding the two-time MVP and leaving him with limited space to operate. After the Raptors took down the Warriors in six games, VanVleet had solidified his role as a hard-nosed reserve guard capable of playing meaningful minutes on a championship team. But when the league felt they had VanVleet figured out, he unlocked a new level of his game.

New level in 2019-2020

The 2019-20 Raptors entered this season as one of the hardest teams to project. The loss of reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers resulted in a lack of star power normally required to be firmly in the Finals discussion. For the Raptors to once again compete at the highest level, they required internal growth from players like VanVleet. For VanVleet, this also meant becoming a full-time starter.

VanVleet’s transition to the starting lineup required him to adapt to playing more of an off-ball role next to Kyle Lowry. Starting Lowry and VanVleet together gives the Raptors two elite playmakers to initiate their offense. The key to the duo’s offensive success is VanVleet’s effectiveness as a spot-up shooter. This season, VanVleet has connected on 43.9 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes. VanVleet’s ability to space the floor is vital for the Raptors’ offense, as it allows Lowry to utilize his greatest strength and operate out in the pick-and-roll.

As a starter, VanVleet has continued to establish himself as one of the best defensive guards in the game. Although they are one of the smallest starting backcourts in the NBA, Lowry and VanVleet have held their own defensively. This season the Raptors rank second in the NBA in defensive net rating, trailing only the Milwaukee Bucks. VanVleet’s defensive versatility is part of what makes the Raptors such a dangerous defensive team.

Depending on what the matchup dictates, VanVleet has been utilized in a number of ways this season. With a sturdy frame and low center of gravity, VanVleet is capable of matching up with larger guards. When the Raptors play a superstar caliber guard, it’s usually VanVleet who draws the defensive assignment. In a game against the Portland Trailblazers, VanVleet held Damian Lillard scoreless on 0-6 shooting while serving as the primary defender. VanVleet also surrendered no field goals to Russell Westbrook of the Houston Rockets, who scored just two points on 0-5 shooting when matched up against VanVleet.

An increased role

Playing more minutes, VanVleet’s numbers have flourished, as he’s posting career highs virtually across the board. While the 17.6 points and 6.6 assists per game VanVleet is averaging this year will have suitors lining up for his service during free agency, VanVleet will command a serious payday due in large part to the fact that he has not yet reached his peak as a player.

This season, 38 percent of VanVleet’s field goal attempts have come at the rim, while 45 percent have been three-point attempts. VanVleet taking almost half of his looks from deep bodes well for the career 39.2 percent 3-point shooter, but his efficiency on two-point field goals needs to improve.

Using his blend of quick bursts, tight handles, and surprising strength, VanVleet has excelled at getting to the basket throughout his career. Once at the rim, VanVleet’s craftiness allows him to attempt layups and off-balance scoop shots others wouldn’t dare try.

In the clip above, VanVleet pushes the ball up the left side of the court after a long rebound. With only Kelly Oubre in between himself and the rim, VanVleet pulls off an audacious spin move as he barrels down the court at full speed. Once he gets Oubre on his left hip, VanVleet is able to use the rim to shield the larger Oubre and toss a soft layup over his outstretched arm.

While plays like this one epitomize the gifted finisher that VanVleet can become, VanVleet is converting on just 51 percent of his looks at the rim this season. Possessing all of the necessary tools to be an exceptional finisher, VanVleet needs to pick his spots better when attacking opposing defenses. At times VanVleet can take borderline reckless layups, but he is learning the appropriate times to delve into his extensive bag of tricks around the basket.

In a free agent class with limited star names available, VanVleet will draw considerable interest from a multitude of teams. A rebuilding team with available cap space, like the Detroit Pistons, could offer him a substantial contract and the complete reins of their offense. A fan-favorite in Toronto, VanVleet may be compelled to stay with the only franchise he’s played for, and re-sign with the Raptors.

While VanVleet’s future team is still largely uncertain, one thing is for sure: VanVleet is a franchise point guard, and this summer he’s going to be paid like one.


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