Raptors’ VanVleet has no plans to settle for back-up role

Eric Smith catches up with Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet about his decision to re-sign in Toronto, and how he feels about LeBron James leaving the East.

The Toronto Raptors introduced their starting point guard on Friday, getting him at a reasonable — by NBA standards — $18-million for two seasons.

Which is different from saying Fred VanVleet will be the starting point guard this coming season, which would be quite the story, given the Toronto Raptors are paying Kyle Lowry $31-million to do that job.

But it is more to say that the Raptors’ sixth man, bench boss and Lowry-adjacent closer has no plans to settle for being a back-up forever and as always is taking a long-range view of his future.

The undrafted free agent turned millionaire spent the first few moments of his celebratory press conference humbly and sincerely thanking those that helped him make his unlikely and rapid rise up the Raptors hierarchy, but in his next breath humbly and sincerely voiced his plans for world domination.

It’s the Fred VanVleet way.

“My main focus for this team is to win a championship for the city of Toronto,” he said. “And just starting individually, doing my part to become a better player, improve each year – I’ve done that so far and this summer is another summer where I have to continue to get better.

“… but you talk about long-term, the plan is obviously to be a starter in this league, and I feel like I’m there now. Just gotta kinda keep cracking away at it and things will come.”

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It’s not often you hear a 24-year-old who was signed to a $50,000 training camp guarantee just two years ago voice his intentions to be an NBA starter – especially given he’s playing behind a four-time all-star in Lowry – but VanVleet is that kind of guy.

“A lot of guys talk about what they want to do, but not a lot of people take action,” said his older brother, Darnell. “Everyday he’s the same person, he doesn’t switch up. He’s dedicated, he’s very loyal and if he doesn’t get it [what he wants] he goes down swinging.”

His stepfather Joe Danforth – a police detective in Rockford, Illinois, VanVleet’s hometown – almost laughed when he was asked if there any possibility striking it rich would somehow distract VanVleet from his bigger picture goals.

“No. No, no, no, no, no,” said Danforth, who was front-row centre at the announcement with the rest of VanVleet’s family. “Fred is always planning two or three steps ahead and he’s always been like that. Fred doesn’t want to look bad and he’s not going to do anything to make himself look bad.”

The Raptors are certainly hoping – maybe even planning – for VanVleet to make them look good. He has so far, making the jump from roster after thought to third in the league-wide voting for the Sixth Man award in the space of just two seasons.

And they didn’t skimp.

League-wide there is a shortage of teams with cap space making for a turgid player market. Comparable free-agents – Marcus Smart with the Celtics, Yogi Ferrell with Dallas – are sitting without deals as their teams try to slow-play them into accepting their qualifying offers.

VanVleet’s was just $1.7-million, for example, but the Raptors never thought of playing hard ball.

There were reports that the Phoenix Suns might make a run at VanVleet but, even then, league sources said the hope was the Suns would set the market and put the pressure on the Raptors to up their offer. But the Suns used most of their cap space to sign Rockets veteran Trevor Ariza and suddenly the prospect of price-driven competition was off the table.

The Raptors came strong anyway. Raptors president Masai Ujiri called VanVleet at the opening bell – 11:01 p.m. Chicago time – a call that VanVleet missed the first time because he was on his way to Walgreens to pick up supplies for his four-month old.

The two sides met in the morning and word of the deal – which couldn’t be made official until Friday – leaked by lunch.

“I mean, it just kinda played itself out that way,”’ said VanVleet. “I didn’t want to leave. It would have took a lot from their end to make me not wanna come back, and nothing of that sort happened. I’ve been blessed to be signed as an undrafted guy with this team, I got my shot, and last year I was thrown into the rotation and made my mark.

“… I don’t know why it’s the best fit or what makes it click, but there’s just something there that resonates with me, resonates with the franchise, the organization, the way things are run. From my pre-draft workout they’ve treated me the same way to this day … and small things like that go a long way.”

That there wasn’t another suitor immediately involved meant the Raptors didn’t have to give the third-year player option that VanVleet was likely seeking but given how highly they value what VanVleet brought to their team in the midst of a record 59-win season – he was their leading three-point shooter at 41.4 per cent and their best on-the-ball defender as well as a stabilizer on a young second unit– they weren’t foolish enough to try and cut corners.

They came with as much as the collective bargaining agreement allowed them to offer and both sides were satisfied, with Raptors general manager Bobby Webster saying the Raptors are prepared to pay the projected luxury tax penalties VanVleet’s deal will require without Toronto moving off other deals to compensate and they aren’t going to put a limit on where their relationship with VanVleet might lead.

“I was thinking a little bit this morning about him,” said Webster. “Two years ago around this time, he’s essentially the backup point guard on our summer league team. Really, every step along the way he’s made a jump, whether it’s [the] first training camp, first season with the G-League, last year in summer, training camp. It would be naive of us to put a ceiling on him.”

VanVleet clearly hasn’t put one on himself and his chance as a starter may come sooner than later.

The Raptors aren’t likely to be able to reshuffle their line-up this off-season given how little fluidity there is in the market and they may not want to now that LeBron James is in Los Angeles and the East appears more wide open than ever.

But the year following the salary cap is expected to jump to about $109-million (from $101.8) and a swath of contract either come of the books league-wide or – like Lowry’s – have a much more palatable one-year remaining.

The player market should loosen up nicely again.

Could VanVleet be in line to start for 2019-20? Could he be positioned to hit free agency again in two seasons again with an even more impressive resume than he did this time around?

VanVleet’s motto is ‘Bet on Yourself’ and it would be unwise to be against him.

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