The Toronto Raptors have an entire five man unit of training camp invites trying out for one possible roster spot that president Masai Ujiri could opt to leave open and a couple of those players have already played at a very high level in the NBA Development League, so why all the fuss over an undrafted 5’11 22-year-old college senior who was cut from a very weak Team USA Pan Am roster a couple of summers ago? Why does head coach Dwane Casey seem so enamored by Fred VanVleet?
Toronto already has a third string point guard in Delon Wright who they drafted 20th overall a year ago and while the 24-year-old is currently rehabbing a shoulder injury, he’s expected back in December and the Raptors surely don’t need two point guards on the 15-man roster who’ll spend more time in Mississauga with the 905 than at the Air Canada Centre.
Wright spent most of last season in the D-League as he was overshadowed by second round pick and fellow rookie guard Norman Powell, but the Raptors drafted him because they believed Wright was more NBA ready than a younger prospect and by the end of the season the signs were there that they were right.
In four games in April with the big club, Wright averaged 14.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field, 3.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists as Casey gave some of his regulars a bit of a break before the postseason. It isn’t a big sample size, but Wright particularly impressed in a win over the Pacers where he scored 19 points. There are signs this kid could be as good as advertised by the Raptors when they drafted him.
Despite going undrafted VanVleet did have a solid four year career with Wichita State, however, progress in his development is hard to discern after his freshman season. As a senior he averaged 12.2 points, 3.2 rebounds, 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals and those stats aren’t any better than the previous two years. His shooting percentages actually dropped quite noticeably.
However, Casey saw something he liked and VanVleet got a quick invite to Summer League where he averaged 6.2 points, 3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.2 steals in just 16 minutes and managed to hold his coach’s attention enough for a training camp invite. In his first three NBA preseason games, VanVleet has averaged 5.3 points and 2.3 assists in 15.7 minutes and still gets praise from Casey. It’s a good thing for VanVleet that Casey values things besides stats.
“I love Fred,” Casey said after practice recently. “He doesn’t change expression. He is under control. He is never off balance and that’s one thing you really like about him.
“He does some subtle things that you don’t recognize. On crack downs, he was one of the few guys that really sandwiched (Clippers center) DeAndre Jordan. He got physical with him. Those are things a point guard has to do and he does all the little things that you want out of your point guard.”
No coach Casey, VanVleet is doing all the little thing YOU want out of all your players. Powell got minutes early last season ahead of Wright because he played tough physical defense and Powell took the veteran James Johnson’s spot in the rotation for the same reason plus some unexpected solid three-point shooting. The formula for getting love from Casey isn’t all that complicated. Hit someone on defense every time down the floor, physically impose yourself offensively, and don’t foul (unnecessarily) and you’re a keeper in Casey’s books.
VanVleet says, “Hopefully (the Pan Am team) is the last time I get cut.” However, in the game against the Clippers, Chris Paul let him know just how far he still has to go to make it in the NBA, and no Paul wasn’t really working all that hard to abuse the potential NBA rookie.
“You got to take those (situations) as a young player in the league and just learn from it,” VanVleet said about playing against Paul. “I didn’t play very well to start the game. That was a new experience for me trying to find a rhythm with the starters. Those guys play at a different pace.”
“I put (VanVleet) out there to get him christened against Chris Paul,” Casey said. “That was a great experience for him to go against a veteran, a great player like Chris Paul just to see all the things, the situations a guard like that puts you in.”
It’s pretty obvious Casey likes what VanVleet brings even if it might be a tough sale arguing to keep both Wright and VanVleet on the roster this season. There is no playing time for a developing third string guard who really needs more seasoning in the D-League on the Raptors this season.
What Ujiri really needs is for the NBA and the NBPA to hurry up and agree on the terms to extend the CBA with the rumored expanded rosters and two-way contracts. Unfortunately, union negotiations rarely follow a predictable timetable and the two-sides have until December to cut a new deal.
With Casey’s comments in hand, it’s easy to see what all the fuss over VanVleet is about. The point guard plays the physical style Casey loves. It just isn’t all that easy to see where or how he fits on a roster already loaded with guards.
“I think he’s catching the league’s eye,” Casey said. “He’s an NBA player. I don’t think there’s a question. He just needs some seasoning.”
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.