Quebec City – The last time Fred VanVleet took the floor in an NBA Game he was a hero, no qualifiers required.
He had long before worked his way into Toronto Raptors‘ lore as the little point guard that could – the undrafted free agent out of Wichita State who helped proved that the franchise’s prized player-development pipeline was real and fruitful, and who quickly made the transition from someone the team projected to help run their G-League team to an essential part of their second unit.
It was that jump that helped VanVleet earn a two-year, $18-million contract in the summer of 2018 before he’d ever started a regular-season NBA game.
But during the NBA Finals and in the Raptors’ clinching Game 6 win, VanVleet had the role player’s version of a superstar turn. Anyone who saw it will never forget it as he popped off for a playoff career-high 22 points, including 12 in the fourth quarter, the last of his three triples in the final frame giving the Raptors the lead for good.
It’s no stretch to say the Raptors aren’t NBA champions without his contributions – he shot 53 per cent from three over their last nine games in the playoffs, a hot streak that came on the heels of a deep slump that was famously broken after the birth of his son, Fred Jr. His perimeter shooting and dogged defence against the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry – he was the “one” in Raptors head coach Nick Nurse’s famous “box-and-one” – earned VanVleet a vote for Finals MVP from none other than Hubie Brown, the legendary former coach and broadcaster.
From a largely unknown, undersized point guard fighting for his NBA career to key cog in a championship team is quite the leap. As he heads into his fourth season, VanVleet paused to savour it for a moment.
“Coming in here as an undrafted guy trying to make the team four years ago, so I would think I’m moving up in a little in terms of that and my value, and what I bring to the table but that honestly started Day 1,” said VanVleet who is one of four Raptors rotation players heading into the final year of their contract.
“From my first day being here, just keep climbing, I’m a very ambitious guy and work my butt off to continue to grow and better each day.
Hopefully, there’s new levels for me to keep reaching, it’s not gonna all happen at once but I think the future is bright.”
It will interesting to see exactly what shape VanVleet’s future takes.
For the first time since he’s been with the team, there might be the opportunity to start regularly, with the departure of Danny Green who started in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry last season, not to mention the gap created by Kawhi Leonard’s decision to leave for the Las Angeles Clippers in free agency.
Despite missing a month with a thumb injury, VanVleet started 28 games last season – often when Leonard was sitting out or in place of Lowry, who missed 17 games. VanVleet also ended up starting the second half of games in the Finals as Nurse sought to match him up with Curry as much as possible and – it turns out – due to some subtle VanVleet subterfuge:
“…Actually, that was born out of an injury,” he said at the Raptors’ training camp.
“For my hip pointer – if I would have sat down (after halftime) I would have probably been done. I think it was Game 3, and we did it again, and my hip started to feel better. I didn’t really tell (Nurse), I just told him ‘You take me out man, I’m not going to be able to go back in,’ and I finessed my way into starting the second half and it worked. So I might need to tell my guy (Nurse) I got a hip pointer starting up so I can play the whole game.”
Make no mistake: VanVleet – who finished third in the NBA’s Sixth Man award voting after the 2017-18 season – wants to be a starter.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the end-all, be-all (but) I’ve been vocal in saying that it’s something I would like to do in my career,” he said.
“If I end up being a bench player my whole career, then so be it. But that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m reaching for the stars, I don’t put limits on myself. I think the world of myself, and I put the work in to think the world of myself. So, it’ll happen, and whenever it happens, I’ll be ready for it. Like I said before, I’m not going to hurt our team with my own ambition in trying to out do people and belittle my teammates, so if they want me to start, I’ll start. And if they don’t, then I’ll be the best bench player I can be.”
Based on a small sample, VanVleet can be effective as a starter – he averaged 13.9 points and 5.7 assists in his 28 starts last season while shooting 38.3 per cent from three to go along with an impressive net rating of +15.7 per 100 possessions.
If Nurse can execute his vision, VanVleet may indeed find his way into the starting lineup – and Lowry’s slow return to action after off-season thumb surgery could be a factor too, given he’s yet to take the floor after two days of training camp. But VanVleet may not be a fixture as the second-year head coach would like to be able to keep things fluid and adjust his lineups according to need, rather than based on any adherence to pre-conceived roles.
“I know it’s a sometimes sensitive topic, but, again, it’s like we were changing our lineups all the way through to the end last year,” said Nurse. “We were starting one group with the first half and a different group for the second all the way to the end.
“I just want to make it part of a little bit more of an acceptance type of thing than — I don’t know — I just don’t think it’s as big a deal as it has been made. We are trying to change the thought process a little (about having fixed roles).
VanVleet wants to push his agenda, but not at the expense of the group.
“Last year kind of set the tone with our fluid lineup changes. It’s not the easiest thing in the world — me and Nurse talk about it all the time — it’s not ideal for players to switch the lineups, but we did it last year so we’re used to it. And I’m sure it’s something we’ll do again this year, and that sets the tone so it’s not a big deal who’s starting the first game or who was on the first (team) in practice. Most situations, that first five never changes. But for us it’s fluid and can change any time.”
Yet as he heads into his fourth season, but first as an NBA champion, VanVleet is clear: he didn’t get this far by being satisfied, settling for the status quo or accepting the limits placed on him by other people.
He’s going to push the envelope in his own way. It’s worked out well so far.
“I signed my deal as a two-year guy, I’m on the end of my deal here, we’ll re-evaluate everything at the end of this year,” he said. “(When) everything goes well and (you) win, everyone’s happy and you go into the next phase of your contract as a pro.
“I’m never going to hurt the team in terms of what I want individually, that always comes after our team goals but those goals are there as well.”