When Fred VanVleet spoke to the media at last season’s end, he was asked to review Vision 6’8” and was as candid as ever. He described the season-long experiment as a tool in the toolbox, a style of play that could prove effective but he also warned of the need to ensure there were other tools available to Toronto’s disposal so they had more than one way of winning.
Many presumed that this was a call for a big man, and rightfully so. There was a sense of relief when Christian Koloko was drafted and general player sentiment at Media Day revealed just as much. The likes of Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, and Scottie Barnes took on a huge physical challenge defending bigs in the absence of a true centre, and if you look closely enough, you just might see a hint of a smile across their faces when Koloko is in action against said big men.
It’s always easier to recognize what’s not around and then appreciate its presence with the knowledge of what’s missing. VanVleet, whether in sickness or in health, is usually ready to soldier on in a battle. If his numbers suffer, the criticism follows. After the all-star break last season, he averaged almost 5.5 points fewer and his three-point shooting fell off a cliff to 29.1 percent in the 15 games he played. When he wasn’t around, Siakam’s All-NBA level exploits and Barnes’ memorable Rookie of the Year clinching campaign minimized the toll of his absence.
Seeing the best of VanVleet again now, you remember that for all the wingspan and switchability across the roster, he’s as valuable and unique a tool as any on this roster. The elements he adds to this team are scarcely found across the rest of the roster but he provides them in Costco quantities. His volume three-point shooting is unparalleled, as is his defence whether it be applying ball pressure in single coverage or defending pick-and-roll actions. He’s also only second to Siakam in making the Raptors’ half-court offence seem somewhat functional. That this run has come with Siakam moving out of frame for at least a couple weeks could not be better timed. VanVleet has been magnificent in a role eerily similar to when he carried the team in the first half of last season where he was rewarded with his first all-star appearance.
“In some aspects I’m here to fill a role,” VanVleet said. “I’m not sure that I was drafted or traded for or selected to be the face of the team but I’m here, I’ve stuck around, I’ve worked extremely hard and I’ve grown into some of these roles that I’ve acquired over the years. Being the leader, being a guy who can be a coach on the floor, understanding what Coach Nurse and the staff wants from our team and what our players wanna do out there, I think I can be the leader in terms of that and just helping guys grow and get better.”
Prior to missing three games with lower back stiffness, VanVleet was toggling between the role he had last season and a new one that leaves him with less playmaking duties and operating as more of a floor spacer as Siakam and Barnes try to initiate. Through the first six games, he averaged just 11 shot attempts a game with about six of them coming from beyond the arc. He averaged 10 three-point attempts and 17 shots per game last season and that’s who we’ve seen since the return.
In four games now that either Barnes or Siakam haven’t played, VanVleet has averaged 28.3 points, 7.0 assists, shot 48.9 percent (22-for-45) on threes, and 94.4 percent (17-for-18) on free-throws. He’s also had seven steals in that span while turning the ball over just six times in 148 minutes. In fact, even with the three games missed, he’s fourth in the league in total steals and second on a per game basis behind only Anunoby. Those aren’t just all-star numbers, they’re superstar ones.
“Just felt a lot better,” VanVleet said of returning. “Try to find a rhythm and be more assertive, not wait. First couple games I was waiting a lot, so, sitting out and having a chance to study some film, watch how the team was playing without me and [then] just rest up and get back out there feeling good.”
Feeling healthy is a huge part of the equation for VanVleet this season. His numbers in the second half of last season were hardly reflective of the player he is and he explained prior to this season’s start that he didn’t necessarily listen to his body with the Raptors in the midst of a push to avoid the play-in tournament. He wasn’t any better in the playoffs either, but that sacrifice earned the likes of Barnes, Precious Achiuwa, Gary Trent Jr., and even Chris Boucher who had his first taste of an expanded role in the post-season some invaluable experience.
Does VanVleet’s body need to be managed to the point that he has a lesser role? Or just to the point where he seems to understand his body better now and take games off when his body’s telling him something? When the team’s core is fully healthy, If VanVleet can play Robin to Siakam’s Batman at least in terms of scoring, it probably best aligns the Raptors’ hierarchy as Barnes continues to grow into more of a scorer and Anunoby and Gary Trent Jr. feed off primary initiators. VanVleet doesn’t need to average the 28 he’s averaged in either Siakam or Barnes’ absence, but the 11.2 (13.4 if you exclude the anomalous 1-point game against the Sixers) he averaged with both those players healthy is far too low as well.
“I think I’m at my best when I’m aggressive so we’ll see how that balances out for our team,” VanVleet said after Toronto beat Houston. “I think I’m pretty good when I’m aggressive and we’ll roll that out for as long as we need to.”
In order for the Raptors to go further than a round, making the playoffs can’t come at the expense of VanVleet’s body and hence why it’s a great sign moving forward that he did listen to his body when experiencing some lower back stiffness and skipped three games.
The mini break has him firing on all cylinders and what has crystallized is that this is the version of VanVleet that’s needed come April. Has the path to enabling that been found, too? That will show in time. For now, and for at least as long as Siakam’s out, know those shots are going up and the Raptors are happy to ride it.