“Next man up” is an NBA cliché that is one of Dwane Casey’s favourites.
In an 82-game schedule there will always be injuries or other issues. Rotations never stay the same. The mantra is meant to reinforce the idea that rather than stop and wallow in the misery as missed games pile up, the next person in line soaks up the minutes available and the machine keeps running.
So far so good, for the Toronto Raptors. Through their first 14 games they have already sustained injuries to starters Jonas Valanciunas (ankle) and Serge Ibaka (knee) and Norman Powell (hip), and the absences created opportunities that were seized by members of the club’s young core of bench players eager to get some burn. Jakob Poeltl turned two of the best games of his career against San Antonio and Golden State with Valanciunas out, Pascal Siakam got a spot start and turned in a career night against the Warriors and subsequent performances moved him from end-of-rotation minutes to end-of-game opportunities. Lucas Nogueira, everyone’s favourite enigma, turned in the game of his life against the Portland Trail Blazers when both Ibaka and Valanciunas were out.
But the hits keep coming, and suddenly the occasionally awkward efforts Casey made to find minutes for a rotation that was legitimately 11 or 12 players deep when healthy looks prescient.
Prior to the Raptors’ 107-84 win over the visiting New York Knicks at Air Canada Centre it was announced that backup point guard Delon Wright would be out indefinitely after dislocating his right shoulder – the same shoulder he required surgery on in the summer of 2016 – in the first half of the Raptors’ win against New Orleans, while Powell would miss another game with his hip. Then, just before game time, Ibaka was scratched with swelling in his knee.
But as has been the case all year, the Raptors didn’t miss a beat, with Siakam shining defensively in a shutdown role against Kristaps Porzingis – the Knicks unicorn was held to 3-of-13 shooting — while filling in for Ibaka and Anunoby finding a way to chip in 11 points on 10 shots despite going 1-of-6 from three.
With the Washington Wizards in Toronto on Sunday, Ibaka and Powell remain day-to-day but Wright could be out for a while, conceivably, depending on the outcome of his meeting with specialists in New York this week.
That will turn the spotlight on Fred VanVleet, the second-year point guard who many thought would be the odd-man out when the Raptors rotation eventually tightened up but now will see his role expand.
Instead with Wright out, VanVleet, an undersized point guard who went undrafted after his senior year at Wichita State, has seen his role expand overnight. He delivered against the Pelicans, chipping in 10 points and three assist on just six shots in 22 minutes and followed up with 7 points, four rebounds and two assists against the Knicks.
“You never want to see a guy go out, I kind of like what we had going,” said VanVleet, referring to the Raptors second unit which ranks fifth in the NBA in bench scoring efficiency, per hoopstats.com. “I’m not that selfish where I need all the minutes. I just care about us winning and I thought our second unit was playing really well so it sucks to have one of our guys go down, but the next guy has to step up and I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
VanVleet has a fan in Casey who just may see something of himself in a player who was largely overlooked despite being a four-year starter at Wichita State on teams that went 121-24 over his four seasons. He was there as he is now, said the Knicks’ Ron Baker, who started alongside VanVleet with the Shockers.
“His IQ has always been fascinating,” said Baker. “Being his teammate he was always telling me things that I wouldn’t think about. Watching him play helped my IQ.”
And what VanVleet may lack in standard NBA size or athleticism as a point guard, he makes up for with an unshakeable resolve. He’s got a clothing line based on his catch phrase “Bet on yourself” which reflects his unwillingness to be put off by challenges that have discouraged more talented players before.
“[He’s] very tough,” said Baker. “Not a lot of things faze him, mentally or physically. At Wichita we always preached how physically tough were at Wichita, but his mental toughness speaks for itself when he plays the game.”
VanVleet’s numbers may never jump off the page but he doesn’t measure his game by them in any case.
“I just try and play the game, play the game the right way,” he said. “Make the right play, come in and guard my position, try to win my matchup and not let my guy score and do what the coach asks me to do and whatever offence comes is extra for me. I don’t have to force myself into the offence, it’s just natural. I just try be tough, play defence, run the offence. Simple stuff.”
That’s what caught Casey’s eye in summer league last year when the Raptors offered him a non-guaranteed deal. It was Wright’s shoulder injury that summer that gave VanVleet the opening to break camp with the club as their third point guard behind Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph. Given the opportunity, VanVleet wouldn’t let the Raptors change their mind on him. His contract guaranteed midway through last season and his presence on their depth chart was one of the reasons they felt comfortable trading Joseph.
“He’s a grinder, he’s a survivor, he’s a worker, he’s had to fight for everything he’s ever gotten in his life,” said Casey. “One of the things that he does, he scratches for everything. That’s what he’s done. Made our team undrafted. I think that’s the same thing he’s done all of his life. That’s something that Fred brings to the table.
“I know toughness is not an issue with him, and that’s what we like about him. I thought he’s done an excellent job in his role.”
It’s been true of all the Raptors’ youngsters who have so far successfully leveraged every opportunity presented by any crack in the rotation opened by injury.
VanVleet plans to be the next man up. You can bet on him, because he will.