That Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri was impressed with the undrafted Wichita State senior Fred VanVleet was kind of obvious going back to Summer League, but signing him to a team-friendly two-year deal and then keeping him on their NBA roster past training camp, that came as a surprise. Just what kind of role could he have as the fourth string point guard on a team that had just gone to the Eastern Conference Finals?
Maybe the signing was motivated by the injury to last year’s rookie point guard Delon Wright who wasn’t expected to be available until the new year, but the signing meant Toronto would have three rookies, two sophomores and two players from two drafts ago. Now that’s a lot of young guys needing a lot of development and no veterans on the bench in case someone got hurt.
Head coach Dwane Casey was going to be sending VanVleet down the QEW to Mississauga to play for the Raptors 905 often and any minutes with the big club would have to be squeezed out of the margins. This would be a challenging season for the rookie.
“It’s tough not being in a natural rotation,” VanVleet told Pro Bball Report. “Sitting for a while and depending on how the game is going, trying to come in and make an impact and I think the few games I’ve been able to come in and spark a run or just change the momentum of the game. I just stay ready, that’s part of being a professional is you don’t get to control when and where you play.”
VanVleet is typically getting his minutes out of blue without warning or any kind of consistency. He has to be ready to contribute and he isn’t going to get more than a minute or two to get his head in the game.
“I am not going to the coaches and asking them if I’m playing or what the rotation is,” VanVleet said. “I trust them and whatever they decide to do, I support it, so I’m definitely not complaining when I’m going in there, but it’s tough and it’s hard to get a rhythm, so that first trip up and down the floor trying get loose and figure it out and then you settle in for a little bit. For the most part I think I’ve been pretty good in those scenarios with few exceptions.
“Any time I get in there, I’m trying to contribute.”
Surprisingly VanVleet has been able to contribute in this unconventional role. There have been games where its been obvious like the recent games against Miami, Dallas and Chicago where he earned to right to play for about 20 minutes because of his positive impact. But it’s his overall impact in the 33 games he has played in that is more impressive. On average, VanVleet contributes.
This season VanVleet is a +1.8 points when he’s on the court and he’s played in just about every type of lineup imaginable in every situation from garbage minutes to key stretches in the middle of games and the fourth quarter. Don’t look at the 2.9 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.8 assists, instead look at a team best defensive rating of 89.6 points allowed per 100 possessions to get a better indication of what’s been happening with VanVleet.
“Earlier in the season we seen the potential, seen how composed of a point guard he is, seen how much he is working, his work ethic and how good of a player he is actually,” Cory Joseph responded to Pro Bball Report after the win over Chicago. “It’s paying off for us. We need him. A game like today he came in, he was a complete professional today. He was ready to go. He changed the game for us. Picking up full court, with steals, making the right plays. He’s a smart I.Q. player, nobody is going to rush him when he is on the offensive end. He is going to play hard strong defense. He was one of the main reasons we won the game.”
The Raptors have “let” VanVleet gain some experience in the NBA D-League where 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse could put him in the starting lineup and play him big minutes. It probably helped him early on, but the role is so different with the big club, it’s been VanVleet’s ability to adjust that has allowed him to enjoy some level of success with the Raptors this season.
“(The 905) that’s totally different,” VanVleet said. “You get way more time, play more minutes, feel the game out and make mistakes. When you are playing a short span, you got to be almost perfect in those minutes. They are not asking a ton out of me. They are not asking me to come and score 20 points off the bench, but I think part of being young and being a rookie is to come into a game with that fresh energy and maybe change the pace or speed the game up a little. It’s not always indicative in the score, but picking up a guy full court, turning him a couple of times just to change the flow of the game. Obviously it’s different than being the main focal point of a 905 game, but it’s part of the process and I’m embracing it.
“I definitely go in (to a Raptors game) with the mindset that I’m not taking any plays off. I’m ready to play as hard as I can for those couple of minutes because it’s a short amount of time. I try to play like that all the time, but when you know it’s only five or six minutes, you go a little bit harder, go all out for those minutes while you are in there and try to contribute. I’ve never done that (short minutes) before, but the biggest thing that has helped me was that I was prepared to say nothing has changed, I prepare today like I’m playing and if I do, I do. I’m ready. If I don’t, it doesn’t hurt me.”
VanVleet has done well in his rookie season. He plays hard and doesn’t seem to get rattled easily. His +/- and defensive rating may be a little misleading as coach Casey pulls him when he gets in trouble and extends his minutes when things are going well, but things have gone well often enough that VanVleet has justified Ujiri’s faith in him as a player who will make it in the NBA.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.