VanVleet Embracing The Opportunity With Raptors and Raptors 905

Holly MacKenzie -

If Dwane Casey’s most commonly used phrase is “defence first mentality” second on the list could be “next man up.” Through the course of every NBA season there are injuries, illness, and unexpected circumstances that pop up. When this happens, the importance of a team’s depth comes to light. After Thursday’s practice, Cory Joseph spoke about the importance of bench depth for successful teams. Three days later, it was Joseph who was sidelined for Toronto’s 109-79 victory against the Orlando Magic because of flu-like symptoms.

Enter rookie Fred VanVleet. The back-up point guard logged nearly 23 minutes against the Magic. He scored four points, grabbed two rebounds, dished three assists and had three steals. Most important for the Raptors, the team was a +19 when he was on the floor. Despite minutes being few and far between as he backs up Joseph and starting point guard Kyle Lowry, VanVleet was ready when Casey called his name.

“Going through morning walkthrough, Coach was telling me stay ready just in case [Cory] wasn’t feeling any better by game time,” VanVleet said. “Once I got to the arena it was pretty much confirmed from that point so I started preparing of my opportunity.”

That opportunity is one that VanVleet has been actively working toward. On off days with the Raptors, VanVleet is in Mississauga working with Raptors 905. After Sunday’s game, Dwane Casey said that VanVleet would be practicing with Raptors 905 on Monday following the team’s return to Toronto.

“It’s been a grind for sure,” VanVleet said. “Going back and forth, [it’s] a lot of basketball, but it’s part of the process. You’ve got guys like Norm [Powell] who have already done it and paved the way so you can pick his brain a little bit about how he got through it. At this point it’s about the experience and exposure. It’s not a punishment, it’s just something you’ve got to go through and try to play well every time you’re out there.”

Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse is in his first year with the team after spending last season on the Raptors bench as an assistant coach. Raptors 905 are on a seven-game winning streak and haven’t lost in December. The benefit of having a head coach who was previously on Toronto’s bench working in Casey’s system is that the process becomes a smoother one for players. Knowing that the guys on the end of the bench who won’t get on the court every night are still getting in-game experience with 905 is comforting for Casey. Calling on VanVleet and seeing him run the team confidently when he is needed is a testament to VanVleet’s work ethic as well as to the work Raptors 905 staff have done with him.

“It really says a lot about our program having our guys ready,” Casey said. “If he had been just sitting on the bench down there [with Raptors 905], not having game experience and game reps as he’s had, as Bruno [Caboclo] has had, as those guys [doing assignments with Raptors 905] have had, he wouldn’t have been ready.

“It’s a great testament to our program, the investment we made in 905 and Fred being ready, stepping up,” Casey continued. “It’s the same thing Norm went through last year. Fred, he came in and there was no let up.”

VanVleet has enjoyed getting to learn from the Raptors staff as well as the Raptors 905 staff. He’s had some lessons sprinkled in from Toronto’s All-Star backcourt as well.

“It’s been great,” he said. “Especially Kyle, being a point guard just taking me under his wing. He doesn’t have to text me inspirational quotes or give me a bunch of advice every day, but just leading the way he does and pulling me aside every so often and saying, ‘Hey think about this. Think about that,’ even just working out with me every so often, those type of things go along way. Obviously, DeMar is DeMar. Being able to play with him, a guy that is that great, he could easily be shaking his head or waving me off when I make a bad play or something, but he just embraces me and is very supportive and I think those guys have been through it and they feel where I'm at and the trajectory.”

Through the grind it’s the moments with teammates that make the workload feel lighter. VanVleet considers himself lucky to be one of 15 on a roster that is so close-knit. Despite not officially earning the team’s final roster spot until days before the season opener, VanVleet had been in Toronto working with the team before summer league, throughout the summer, and then into training camp. That familiarity has helped on and off the floor.

“It’s been the best part of the process,” VanVleet said. “Having all these guys who have your back no matter what. Being able to play with some of the younger guys throughout the summer, learn some chemistry, being able to watch these guys move, and being able to watch Kyle lead, and the plays he makes, so that when I get my chance I can try to replicate that and do my own thing as well. It’s been great. I think one though 15, the whole coaching staff [as well], has been very supportive embracing me.”

Getting to watch Lowry and DeRozan up close has been a learning experience VanVleet appreciates. The way he’s embracing his opportunities and working diligently in between them has made both Raptors All-Stars appreciate their rookie point guard in return.

“It shows you how much he wants to be here and he feels he’s deserving to be here,” DeRozan said of the poise VanVleet displayed on Sunday. “That’s a true professional, for a young guy to come in whenever his name is called. Cory goes down, not feeling too well, [Fred] comes in and does everything he needs to do. He’s not timid or nothing, it was great.”

As the point guard who was getting replaced by VanVleet when he went to the bench, Lowry enjoyed watching his back-up run the show as he rested. After the game, his praise flowed freely.

“Unbelievable,” Lowry said. “He’s been going down to the D-League and taking assignments well, playing well. He translated that to the floor tonight. It was a great pleasure for me personally to see him go out there and play the way he did tonight.”