The (All-Star) Blueprint: Raptors backcourt share a special bond

By: Holly MacKenzie

Kyle Lowry became Toronto’s all-time franchise leader in assists on Tuesday. Roughly 48 hours later, he was named an All-Star for the sixth time. 

 “It’s always special to be an All-Star,” Lowry said. “I’m always humbled and always honoured to be able to step in front of these great fans, and the coaches showing the respect that they have for me, these coaches are some of the best coaches in the world, they are the best coaches in the world. For them to pick me, to represent our league as an All-Star, it means tremendous amounts and it’s hard to conjure up words [of appreciation].”

Thursday’s announcement means Lowry is also the franchise’s first player to earn six All-Star selections as a Raptor. It will also be his sixth consecutive appearance. Lowry will join Pascal Siakam, who was voted as a starter in his first All-Star appearance.

“I wouldn’t be here without my teammates and without the coaches, without my friends and family,” Lowry said on Thursday. “These guys literally let me go out there and lead them. I love leading them. I love being a teammate to them. These guys are one of one. They’re all great, every last one of them is great.”

Lowry is in his 14th NBA season. This is his eighth in Toronto. During that time he has played through the beginning of a rebuild and reaped the reward of seeing it through, helping to bring the first championship in franchise history to Toronto last June. Averaging 19.8 points, 7.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game in 36.9 minutes per game this season, Lowry is the all-time Raptors leader in assists, steals, win shares, box plus-minus, three-point field goals and triple-doubles. 

These stats don’t begin to mention the plays he makes and the possessions he creates in every game, the ones that leave you wondering how he’s able to balance so many things and players and places and options all at once. Whether it’s recognizing the play call of the other team, getting a charge at a crucial stage of the game, or getting his head coach to successfully use his coach’s challenge on something Lowry himself has noticed, he’s somehow always a step -- or five steps -- ahead of everyone else. 

“We are used to [those plays], but we should still talk about how incredible that stuff is,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “I am constantly amazed at the plays this guy makes away from scoring and assisting. All the charges, the ones that I see that nobody ever talks about, I just can’t believe how many times he rides a 6-foot-10, 250-pound guy out of bounds to grab a rebound at his size. That’s going on like five times a game. It’s unbelievable. The charges, the hustle plays, and then the game-winning plays. I appreciate it, I know that.”

What’s it like to share the floor with Lowry in the backcourt? 

“It’s basketball heaven,” Fred VanVleet said.

VanVleet’s NBA journey began almost four years ago when he went undrafted in the 2016 NBA Draft, played for the Raptors during Las Vegas Summer League, and then signed with the team prior to the start of training camp. An undersized point guard with a chip on his shoulder and a desperate need to prove people wrong, VanVleet joined a team whose locker room leader was… an undersized All-Star point guard with a chip on his shoulder and a desperate need to prove people wrong.

Almost immediately, there was a connection between Lowry and VanVleet. Even during his rookie season, where VanVleet spent almost as much time in Mississauga with Raptors 905, the team’s G League affiliate as he did with the Raptors, a bond between the two point guards started to blossom.

“I always respected him because we would always talk about the games, even when I didn’t play any minutes,” VanVleet said. ”I would talk to him during timeouts and try to be like his ‘whisperer’. Him and DeMar [DeRozan] had their thing, but I would try to tell him what I’d see and he would take heed and he would listen. He wouldn’t always apply it, but he would give me that respect of listening.”

Getting to play with and learn from one of the smartest players in the league isn’t something that VanVleet takes for granted. As he went from undrafted player to Sixth Man of the Year nominee to receiving a vote for Finals MVP as the Raptors won the championship in 2019 in his first three seasons in the league, VanVleet has continued to pick Lowry’s brain. He also has continued to watch him work. The results have been evident this season with the two sharing the backcourt and seeming to operate almost as an extension of one another on the floor.

“Honestly, it’s so refreshing and easy [to play alongside Kyle],” VanVleet said. “It takes the stress and pressure off because we don’t really have to talk at all. we do it because we do, but I know what he’s thinking, he knows what I’m thinking. On the times we mess up, we don’t even have to talk, we just look at each other and know what to do the next time.”

While a rookie VanVleet was constantly coming to Lowry with suggestions and observations, the two often debrief with each other after games now, in the locker room, but also in extra film sessions.

“Sometimes we both watch the film, watch a game back together and we just laugh because we do things that neither one of us have ever talked about,” VanVleet said. “We just know where to go, especially on the defensive end, I can read what he’s going to do next before he does it. That’s just something that’s up in the air, it’s not tangible, it’s hard to describe, but it’s a huge blessing to be able to play with a guy like that.”

Much like a rookie VanVleet four years ago, Terence Davis came to the Raptors this summer after going undrafted in the 2019 NBA Draft. He, too, appreciates the opportunity to learn from Lowry, as well as VanVleet.

“Kyle’s one of the smartest point guards in the league,” Davis said. “He just knows where to be and when to be there. He knows where others should be. That’s what a great point guard in this league is, just knowing the flow of the game. It’s something you can’t teach or coach, being 14 years in the league, he knows it so well. For me, it’s a big plus because I get to learn and watch him every single day, Kyle, and Fred. Those guys help me out so much, just bringing life into my journey into the NBA.”

A few hours before Lowry set the Raptors’ all-time assist record, Nurse gave his take on the upcoming All-Star ballots. After discussing the many irreplaceable things Lowry does on the basketball court, he was asked about some of the mock ballots that had been posted that did not feature Lowry as a reserve. He didn’t hold back when voicing support for his player. 

“I think that if that guy is not on an All-Star ballot, considering the last 18 months, the last six months that he had had, and where our team is, that’s unfathomable to me,” Nurse said. “That anybody that has a decent knowledge of the game or the NBA would keep him off of it. That doesn’t make sense to me. It wouldn’t make any sense to me. Not even close. Not even close to me.”

A week earlier, Lowry’s hometown Philadelphia 76ers were in Toronto. Sixers head coach Brett Brown has coached against Lowry throughout Lowry’s NBA career, but his history with Toronto’s point guard runs much deeper.

“Because he’s Philadelphia and because one of my close friends and former assistants, Billy Lange, had a lot to do with Kyle and his development from his Villanova days, I know his path really, really well,” Brown said.

“Kyle is one of those people, there’s just a maniacal competitiveness and a pride that he plays with,” he said. “Look at how he’s changed his body, and his game, and his leadership. I’m just speaking from a human standpoint, to see him be rewarded with an NBA Championship last year, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t proud of his path and his route. I just think he has intangibles that you see some of these great players have. Chris Paul carries himself a certain way and Kyle does [as well]. You add that into his blatant skill package, his mental toughness, his will. It polishes up that whole package quite well. He’s always been difficult for us.”

VanVleet has been witness to that maniacal competitiveness since entering the Raptors’ locker room in 2016.

“It’s just like, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” VanVleet says. “He’s super cool and super fun and the best teammate. He jokes and he laughs, and he may be in a bad mood one day or he might not feel like practising or whatever, but there’s something like a little time bomb in his head and when the ball is tipped up, it doesn’t matter what’s going on or who he’s mad at or whatever is going on in the world, he’s going out there to play. That’s something that we all respect and love about him.”

When Lowry was told how Brown had described his competitiveness, he couldn’t help but grin. “I love it,” he said. “I just go out there and try to help my team win no matter what.”

After Tuesday’s 130-114 victory over the Hawks, Nurse was asked if Lowry plays with an extra edge when he’s facing another All-Star point guard, in this case, Atlanta’s Trae Young. “I just think he really enjoys leading his teammates and competing and playing,” Nurse said. “There isn’t too many times out there where he doesn’t show that he loves to play ball, that he loves the game.”

This is Nurse’s second season as Toronto’s head coach, but his seventh season with the Raptors, after joining the organization in 2013 as an assistant coach. Though he was familiar with Lowry’s game before joining the staff, the plays that don’t reach the boxscore or nightly highlight reel are what stood out as he learned more about the point guard who was a year removed from his first of six straight seasons of being named an All-Star.

“He competes,” Nurse said. “If you want a list of a bunch of skills that makes guys good, if you’re drafting people, or trying to pick guys for your team or whatever, guys that compete have got to be up there really high. He wins. He’s been out there with a lot of different groups of guys over the last seven years and he’s been one of the constants and the record looks the same every year.”

When talking about the cohesion of the Lowry/VanVleet backcourt Nurse pointed to the similarities of the two players.  

“I see a super closeness and a real similarity in who they are, how they are, how they play,” he said. “That inner drive, that inner characteristic of leadership, toughness, competitiveness. Making big plays, making big shots, a super-high IQ. I think that naturally kind of draws them right together. It certainly does on our floor, it certainly does in our locker room, it certainly does when I see them around.”

Though VanVleet won’t be an All-Star this season, in less than four years he has more than proven his doubters wrong, his name continues to climb the opponent scouting report. After getting to watch Lowry’s evolution up close, VanVleet has the blueprint for where he wants to go.

“Everything,” he says of what he has learned from Lowry. “I take a lot from what he’s done. It’s kind of like that big brother, little brother thing where I get to see him go through his whole career and study him and see where he went wrong and where he went right and try to take bits and pieces and add them to my life and what I need to do. A lot of what I do comes from him. It’s my job to take what he did and try to take it to the next level.”

All of this makes perfect sense. The question that remains is why Lowry -- regularly considered the smartest player in the room -- was so willing to listen to a then unproven rookie teammate when he shared those observations back in 2016? 

“I love him,” Lowry said. “He’s like my little brother. He’s like the little brother I never had. Me being a veteran presence, I want to see all my guys be successful. I liked the way he worked. I care for him. He really is my little brother, he helps me and I help him and I just want to see him be super successful.”

With one guard a six-time NBA All-Star and the other eager to continue the rapid ascension of his past three years, Raptors fans have been blessed with their backcourt. Nurse knows this better than anyone.

They are very similar,” he said. “And we’re lucky to have them both because they’re both very special players."

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