On Saturday night Fred VanVleet will get his best chance to shine during the NBA’s All-Star weekend.
It will be another opportunity for the Toronto Raptors point guard’s story to be shared. It’s one that never gets old. Undersized and overlooked, he’s just the fifth undrafted player in NBA history to take part in the league’s mid-season showcase, and the first point guard to find his way amongst the league’s elite from such modest beginnings.
But let’s face it, VanVleet’s game – grimy defence and ‘play within the flow’ offence – is not likely to light up the crowd in Cleveland during the game on Sunday. It’s not like he’s not going to dunk on anyone.
So realistically, VanVleet’s moment is most likely to come in the three-point contest.
And that would be yet another chapter in his underdog story. He was a good but not particularly special three-point marksman at Wichita State and shot mainly catch-and-shoot threes in the rhythm of the offence in his early years as a Raptor.
But VanVleet’s All-Star season has been powered by him having one of the greatest shooting seasons in the history of the sport.
It’s a development that has surprised even those close to him, who believed in VanVleet’s ability to make his way into the NBA as a tough-minded defender who had a knack for scoring when needed, but not as a bomber.
There was the matter of the less-than-ideal side spin he shoots the ball with – more on that in a moment – and that he wasn’t all that prone to launch threes at all.
“For the longest time he was a reluctant shooter,” Joe Danforth, VanVleet’s stepfather and his summer basketball coach throughout middle school and high school. “Even in college. If he missed his first two shots, he wouldn’t shoot the ball again. He didn’t take a lot of threes in high school. He would shoot threes, but he wasn’t jacking them. He wasn’t coming down and just letting them go. He was always a reluctant shooter.
“But when he got with the Raptors and got his confidence? He just said ‘F--- it and let it go.”
There is no doubt of that. VanVleet is averaging 10 attempts per game from deep this season which is well past Kyle Lowry’s team mark of 8.0 set in 2019-20.
But winning the three-point event is no small task. As stars have steered away from the dunk contest and long-range shooting has become a bigger and bigger factor in the sport, it’s the three-point contest that has the most talent-laden field and attracts the biggest names. Chicago’s Zach LaVine, Atlanta’s Trae Young and Minnesota’s Karl Anthony-Towns will give the event some oomph even with two-time champion Steph Curry opting to sit this one out.
But VanVleet has good reason to step on the floor expecting to win, even if that’s how approaches everything anyway.
The six-year veteran is shooting better than any person ever has – at least in the non-Steph Curry division.
It’s even been obscured somewhat in Toronto, where much of the focus on VanVleet’s All-Star campaign has been his pursuit of franchise icon Kyle Lowry’s single-season record for made threes of 238 set in 2017-18.
But VanVleet should sail past that in a matter of weeks. Last Saturday he became the first Raptor other than Lowry to record at least 200 threes in a season. If he’s healthy and shooting well he’ll make his 212th three at some point on the Raptors' three-game road trip after the All-Star break and move into second on the franchise list. As long as VanVleet keeps clipping along at four made threes a start, he should set the Raptors record with about 15 games left to play.
Nope, catching Lowry is a foregone conclusion, health permitting.
More significantly, VanVleet is on pace to make 300 triples for the season, which is beginning to shape up (given we’re still relatively early in the NBA’s three-point dominant era) as the basketball equivalent of a 60-home run season; or a 60-goal season in the NHL.
There are only two people alive who have made 300 NBA triples in a single year – Curry, who is on pace to do it for the fifth time and holds the record at 402 set in 2015-16, and James Harden, who did it in 2018-19 with 378 makes – the second-most of all time. Harden also hit 299 threes in 2019-20.
It’s an exclusive club and Curry is the only person to do it while shooting 40 per cent from three.
But VanVleet can join it – he’s at 40.1 per cent so far. With 25 games left VanVleet can get to 300 makes if he keeps his current pace, though he’s got no room for error. More encouraging is that VanVleet has been averaging 4.8 makes a game over his past 25 games. Keep that up and it gives him some cushion if he needs to miss some games down the stretch.
Even VanVleet’s success as a shooter is another beacon of hope for those who are trying to do things on their own terms in the face of criticism.
Why? Well, he shoots it funny, at least by a purist's standards.
He twists his right hand to the left ever so slightly on his release – imagine tightening the lid on a jar of peanut butter – and instead of the ball coming off his hand with the pleasing, tight, reverse spin that coaches love, VanVleet’s high-arching ball corkscrews to the rim with a three-quarters, right-to-left rotation like a slow-motion screwball.
Shooting guru Dave Hopla noticed it right away when he was working for the Detroit Pistons and VanVleet came to a pre-draft workout in the summer of 2016. But he noticed too that VanVleet shot it the same way, time after time.
That’s what matters most, says Hopla, who was the Raptors shooting coach in 2006-07 among a number stops as one of the basketball’s most sought-after shooting clinicians.
“Unless it’s really broken, I tell people: just make tweaks and adjustments to make it consistent,” says Hopla. “I had Reggie Miller [the Hall-of-Famer who ranks third all-time in made threes]. We didn’t change Reggie because he could really shoot and he was consistent with it … I mean, Reggie used to foul himself: his shooting hand would hit his guide hand, but he did it every single time. Nobody has a perfect shot, what you strive for is a repeatable shot, and Fred has that: His footwork is great, he’s not drifting, he gets planted and his legs are under him every time and he’s got great range. Strong kid.
“Fred’s a great shooter. The numbers don’t lie.”
In a story by Eric Koreen of The Athletic during VanVleet’s second season, the point guard attributed his slightly off-kilter motion to being unable to lay his shooting hand perfectly flat underneath the ball and compensating by getting his guide involved, resulting in a flick at the ball with his left thumb as he releases it.
The Raptors took note of it right away, and Nick Nurse in particular. The fourth year head coach ran shooting clinics earlier in his career and even went so far as to invent and market a ball – “Nurse’s Pill” – for teaching purposes and write a book on shooting mechanics. But in the end, the only guidance Nurse provided VanVleet was to work on extending his range after he struggled to get threes off against taller defenders early in the 2018-19 playoffs.
Other than that? If it works, don’t fix it.
“He shoots it that way because it's kind of what he's always done,” said Nurse. “It's kind of the way his body works best. It just functions better that way for him to do it. It does go against the grain of what you would probably say is ideal for keeping the ball on a straight pattern and also to soften it up when it hits the rim, but it's ingrained -- thousands and thousands and thousands of shots he's done, over and over, continues to work on it. And I think a lot of guys through history have had their own style. And that's his.”
It's the results that matter. Pascal Siakam has played with VanVleet for six years and says he’s never noticed anything unusual about his teammates’ shooting, other than he makes a lot of shots.
“I don’t care how much it spins,” said Siakam. “If it goes in, for me, I’m cool … when he shoots, it feels like it goes in every time.”
The basketball world will be watching in slow-motion on Saturday night as VanVleet brings his unique spin the three-point contest.
Can he win it? Well, VanVleet has proven over and over that betting against him is a losing proposition, and besides, oddsmakers have him and Brooklyn Nets gunner Patty Mills as co-favourites.
So make a wager and sit back while VanVleet takes his best shot at a piece of NBA history tonight and the rest of his All-Star season.
Textbook? Nope. Just storybook.