When Fred VanVleet defends the ball with arms stretched high and wide, he looks a bit like a man standing face-to-face with a bear, desperate to make himself appear larger than he actually is. This league could eat him alive, and yet VanVleet stubbornly casts a longer shadow with every passing season, staking his career on succeeding in ways where other small guards would fail. It’s not as if the four-year, $85 million contract he signed with the Raptors came by clerical error; VanVleet was the top guard on the 2020 free-agent market because he could conceivably fit almost any team and play almost any style.
Want him to slot in as a scorer alongside an All-Star point guard like Kyle Lowry? No problem. Need him to fill in at the point, trading some of his roaming freedom for a supervisory role? He just did, guiding the Raptors to a 3-1 record while Lowry nursed a thumb injury. Looking for someone to shadow Steph Curry or challenge Devin Booker at every turn? That’s just another day in the wilderness. The shortest player on the floor for the Raptors has managed to borrow the sort of versatility usually reserved for forwards with sprawling wingspans. VanVleet blends smoothly into any backcourt, making him both a walking curiosity from a team-building standpoint and a practical solution to so many of Toronto’s problems. It’s astounding how much Nick Nurse’s troubleshooting relies on either moving VanVleet around the floor or quietly calling on him to do things few players of his size ever could.
It took time, but VanVleet’s persistent, monthslong efforts finally have the Raptors kicking around .500. A campaign like his is worthy of All-Star selection, though the coaches didn’t vote that way. “Well, the voting just ended [Monday],” Nurse told reporters this week. “We were 14-7 in our last 21. I mean, were you still stuck on our 2-8 start? Kyle’s been out a bunch of games. He’s picked up the slack for a six-time All Star, won a lot of games, beat a lot of good teams and had huge games. I’m disappointed. I’m sure there’s some other guys on other teams that are very disappointed as well, but I think he’s played his guts out and our team’s played pretty well and he’s been a big reason for it.”
VanVleet’s omission against a loaded field is a tough break. His emergence as a star, however, feels consequential for a Raptors team that’s rounding into form for a run this season and has plenty to consider beyond it. Toronto has started three different backcourt combinations thus far as part of 11 different starting lineups. The default is VanVleet and Lowry, the last remaining starters from the 2019 title team. When Lowry has missed time, Nurse has started Norman Powell (who would be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year if he hadn’t been called into emergency duty as a starter so often) at the 2 alongside VanVleet, and also tried DeAndre’ Bembry (who already looks the part of a beloved role player in his first season with the Raps) in the backcourt as a sort of point guard alternative. After finding its footing, Toronto is now winning with all of the above:
The VanVleet Effect
|VanVleet and Lowry||1,301||6.2|
|VanVleet and Powell*||824||4.2|
|VanVleet and Bembry*||366||7.3|
That all three of VanVleet’s counterparts are such wildly different players works out to be more a feature than a bug—and an element of intrigue as the Raptors near the trade deadline in Lowry’s last season under contract. The trade rumors are already swirling—with such fervor, apparently, that Lowry’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, joined NBA Today on SiriusXM Radio to dispel the notion Lowry was angling his way to Philadelphia. The truth of it may be simpler: Lowry, who is already the greatest player in franchise history, will soon be able to decide for himself where he’ll play next season; and VanVleet, with the particulars of his star turn, has given the Raptors more versions of its future worth considering.
Toronto has found stability in a wide variety of lineups by relying on VanVleet to provide the ballast. Some guards make their teammates better with the sort of visionary passing that elevates others—even literally, as when James Harden or Luka Doncic pulls the attention of the defense (and ours along with it) before throwing up a lob for an eager dunker at the last possible moment. Others, like VanVleet, give their teammates ground to stand on.
The majority of VanVleet’s life on defense seems to be spent in pursuit, in spirited acceptance of what have become the worst assignments in the pro game: Tracking dangerous shooters who are not only focal points for an entire offense, but also protected from even the slightest contact. As shooters have learned to contort their bodies and the rules to their benefit, the game of cat and mouse has flipped. It’s quite the turnabout; one of the most valuable skills a modern perimeter defender can have is the ability to elude the player they’re guarding.
VanVleet is nimble enough to trail his mark as they race around the court, skip past a screener like a stone off the surface of a lake, and fly by to contest a shot just as it winds up, all without any damning contact. That he can do this—and do it so well—means that Lowry and OG Anunoby don’t have to, affording them the latitude to seep into the workings of an opponent’s designed set and muddle it from within. Should VanVleet’s man deign to spot up, VanVleet will join in on the sabotage by sinking in toward the elbows to strip unsuspecting drivers with impeccable timing and “heavy hands,” as his former college coach once described to James Herbert of CBS Sports. No spin move is safe. For a team that strategically relies on split-second closeouts to defend the full range of the floor, VanVleet covers ground with a mad dash into an inexplicably balanced stop, all without the bounding stride of so many of his teammates.
In search of his own offense, it was necessity that pushed VanVleet (who is a listed 6-foot-1, but is perhaps closer to a dating-app 6-foot-1) farther and farther out on the floor, where he has become one of the league’s most committed deep-range shooters. For players of a certain size, the ability to even attempt 3s can’t be taken for granted; it takes work to make space, and even more work when the majority of the league has enough of a height advantage to close it. VanVleet seems to grow only bolder, and thus far is responsible for more total 3-pointers—through his own makes and assisting those of his teammates—than all but Curry and Damian Lillard. His playmaking frees Pascal Siakam of the strictures of running a team as if it were his alone, a gift of dashing creativity.
VanVleet instinctively mixing it up in the paint for rebounds allows the Raptors to dabble with Anunoby at the 5, as they did against the Sixers and the Heat this week. VanVleet’s tenacity is why they can play around with a wide range of zone coverage; there is no box-and-one, after all, without the one. It’s VanVleet who’s on an island or, if not that, then meeting again with the bear. It never stops. After every taxing defensive stand, VanVleet charges downcourt to run his own routes or his own offense, as hefty a workload as any found in the league. Only Julius Randle has logged more total minutes, according to NBA.com, and no one has logged more total miles.
Toronto plays too much of a collective game to make VanVleet out to be the sole champion of their in-season rebound; to praise his game, after all, is to praise Lowry’s, considering their kindred spirits. To separate them would be a damn shame, though the same could have been said of Lowry and longtime Raptor DeMar DeRozan. Everything will eventually meet its end—even the more perfect union of two champions who, together, reached a higher state of little-guard consciousness. What makes that inevitability easier to accept is that VanVleet himself has become a sort of animating principle for the Tampa version of the Raptors—a co-leading scorer (VanVleet’s 20 points a game is balanced by Siakam’s 20.1) predisposed toward the most thankless work in basketball.
“I pride myself on trying to play the right way,” VanVleet told reporters after scoring a franchise-record 54 points against the Magic earlier this month, “and I’ve sacrificed quite a bit in stretches. I feel like I’m talented. I feel like I can do a lot more than what I do sometimes. … When you play with a pure heart and a clear conscience and a clear soul, good things happen for you.”
Those good things did not include an invitation to this year’s All-Star Game, though there can be brilliance beyond what’s recognized in a hollow, needless showcase. Glory be to Fred VanVleet, if not in Atlanta then in every other arena he brightens with a good night’s work. Some seasons earn accolades, and some open up new possibilities of what could be.