A good indication of how highly you are regarded by your peers is how happy they are when good fortune finds you.
Who’s not happy for Fred VanVleet right now?
Not that there was ever any question about the relationship between Kyle Lowry and VanVleet – the Raptors veteran took VanVleet under his wing almost from the moment the younger guard was signed by Toronto as an undrafted free agent with nothing but a $50,000 training camp guarantee in the summer of 2016.
This past season, as VanVleet’s game blossomed in his first year as a starter, Lowry became a one-man public relations machine for his protege.
When Lowry was named an Eastern Conference All-Star for the sixth time back in January, he made the story about VanVleet, and how the pending free agent would himself be an All-Star one day.
When the Raptors were eliminated in the Game 7 of their second-round series against the Boston Celtics, Lowry took the opportunity to promote VanVleet as he headed into free agency.
So, on Saturday afternoon when news broke that the 26-year-old VanVleet had been re-signed by Toronto on a four-year deal worth $85 million, it was hard to tell who was happier, VanVleet or his mentor:
The deal is yet another remarkable way station on a professional career only the hardest-hearted person could fail to appreciate, as the undersized guard with short arms and no leaping ability to mention somehow keeps turning expectations upside down.
After a stellar college career at Wichita State, VanVleet held a draft party in his hard-scrabble hometown of Rockford, Illinois, only to be passed over by the entire NBA on his big night.
Every draft since, it seems, the handheld video recording of VanVleet addressing the crowd gets recirculated, often as a reminder to kids who don’t get drafted that their story doesn’t end there — as VanVleet says in the video — but that it’s “just beginning.”
His plan, he said, eventually became his personal slogan: “Bet on yourself.”
Who knows where VanVleet’s story will eventually end, but he closed another triumphant chapter when he reached a deal after meeting with Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster, who flew in to meet VanVleet in Chicago.
It’s not clear how much of a market developed for VanVleet. Going in it was thought that the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks were the two teams most likely to try and pry the 26-year-old from the Raptors.
The Pistons took themselves out of the running with a series of moves on Friday night that ate into their cap space while the Knicks didn’t make an offer in the end.
The Raptors didn’t mess around, however.
After a career-best season where VanVleet put up 17.6 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 39 per cent from three on nearly seven attempts a game, all while leading the NBA in deflections per game, finishing fourth in steals and emerging as a team leader in word and deed, Toronto more than doubled VanVleet’s $9-million salary and doubled the term of his previous deal.
And if you don’t think VanVleet isn’t ready to bet on himself one more time, it’s worth noting that he negotiated for a player option in year four of his contract, a suggestion that he believes he’ll be in a strong position three years from now to get himself another lucrative deal.
The Raptors were able to get one concession, as the structure of the deal is such that VanVleet will make $21.25 million this season and then a step back by eight per cent in year two to $19.55 million before ramping back up in year three and potentially year four.
The lower number for the 2021-21 season allows the Raptors a little more wiggle room in their plan to maintain enough salary cap room to add a ‘max’ contract player from the summer of 2021’s beefy free-agent class.
For now the, Raptors need to focus on the roster for 2020-21 as they get ready to open training camp in Tampa Bay in just 10 days.
But while the Raptors were able to do right by VanVleet, they didn’t have such luck to bring back centre Serge Ibaka, who is reportedly reuniting with Kawhi Leonard and joining the Los Angeles Clippers.
Had the Raptors been able to bring back Ibaka, however, virtually the entire core of the group that played at a team-record 60-win pace during the pandemic-interrupted regular season — and firmly believed they should have advanced out of the East were it not for an uncharacteristically flat showing against the Celtics — would have returned for the new season.
That ultimately didn’t happen, but even without Ibaka, much of this team still remains the same and this is a group with plenty of belief in its own ability.
Kind of how VanVleet always believed in himself.