The most memorable moment of Fred VanVleet’s rookie season didn’t come on an NBA court. It came in an empty gym in Rockford, Illinois.
It was there where VanVleet competed in a game of 1-on-1 against a D-League player and one of the best shooting guards in the country at the time for a video titled “Can YOU Guard a 6 ft NBA Player?” As 160,000 people would soon find out, the answer was a definitive no.
Even though he was coming off of a lackluster season in which he averaged 2.9 points, 1.1 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 37 games with the Raptors, VanVleet had his way with two players who have dreams of one day playing in the NBA. He hit jumpers from all over the court, both from a standstill and off the dribble. He got to the basket at will, using the smallest of gaps to score against a pair of taller defenders. He faked one of them out of their shoes on two occasions, making the most of his herky-jerky game to keep them off balance.
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The end result was 19 points for VanVleet, seven points for then Sioux Falls Skyforce point guard Marcus Posley and three points for now Michigan Wolverines shooting guard Jordan Poole. Neither of them, it turns out, stood much of a chance.
The video served as a reminder of how good players like VanVleet — undrafted college stars who spend almost all of their rookie seasons on assignment in the minors and get nothing more than garbage time in the majors — are. It prompted folks on Reddit to share personal experiences of playing pickup against Division I athletes and basketball vagabonds, the thought being that VanVleet would follow in their footsteps of being talented basketball players who weren’t ever quite good enough to make it at the highest level in the NBA.
So nobody could have foreseen VanVleet sharing the floor with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, C.J. Miles and Jonas Valanciunas in an overtime period against the Pistons nine months later. VanVleet was in the midst of one of his worst shooting performances of the season, missing eight of his nine shot attempts in 24 minutes of action off the bench. And yet, Dwane Casey’s trust in playing him down the stretch paid off: VanVleet him the game-winning jump shot, helping the Raptors clinch a playoff berth before any other team in the league.
VanVleet wasn’t in that position because someone ahead of him in the rotation was injured or in foul trouble. He has closed a number of games for the Raptors this season — Lowry, DeRozan and Serge Ibaka are his only teammates who have logged more clutch minutes — a testament to how much Casey now trusts him. It helps that VanVleet has been at the forefront of the most successful bench unit in the NBA this season. According to NBA.com, the combination of him, Delon Wright, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl has smoked teams by a margin of 23.3 points per 100 possessions in their 272 minutes together.
Of lineups that have logged at least 50 minutes for the Raptors, the only one that has been more dominant features VanVleet with Lowry, DeRozan, Ibaka and Valanciunas.
VanVleet is a huge reason for the success of those lineups, too. The Raptors are currently outscoring opponents by an average of 14.7 points per 100 possessions whenever he is on the court, giving him the highest net rating in the entire league. That has translated into the Raptors outscoring opponents by a total of 370 points with him in the lineup this season, putting VanVleet behind only eight players in raw plus-minus despite playing in significantly less minutes than the likes of Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry and James Harden.
Whether it’s as the leader of the second unit or as the only bench player on the floor, the secret to VanVleet’s success is he can do a little bit of everything. He’s not the most efficient pick-and-roll scorer, but he’s a crafty finisher who knows how to create his own shot coming off of a screen. He’s undersized at 5-foot-11, but he can slide off-ball and space the floor for Lowry and DeRozan as a 3-point shooter. He’s not the most gifted passer, but he can find the open man and he rarely turns the ball over. He’s not the most athletic player, but he’s a relentless defender who harrasses opposing ball-handlers all over the court.
Some of that is easy to measure. A quick search on NBA.com will tell you VanVleet has made 42.7 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers this season, a rate similar to Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Otto Porter Jr. While VanVleet doesn’t take and make as many catch-and-shoot 3-pointers as Curry, Nowitzki and Porter do on a nightly basis, those looks represent over a third of his shot attempts on the season. It’s a similar case with his passing. VanVleet only averages 3.2 assists per game, but he is on the same page as Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala and Lowry when it comes to taking care of the ball.
Having someone who does those types of things at a consistent level off the bench can be an incredibly valuable piece to a team built around two All-Stars in the backcourt.
A lot of what makes VanVleet special isn’t measurable, though. Boxing out Karl-Anthony Towns in the closing seconds of a tightly contested game, for example, doesn’t show up on a traditional box score even though it serves as the knockout punch between two playoff teams:
VanVleet doesn’t get much credit for picking up Chris Paul the full length of the court and forcing him to commit a rare turnover that turns into an easy basket, either:
Those are the extra effort plays VanVleet makes every game that separate him from most players who have been in his position before. As Casey explained following a victory against the Grizzlies early in the season, VanVleet’s toughness, defense and ability to shoot the ball makes it “very difficult” to keep him off the floor at the end of games. “He brings so much to the table,” Casey added. “He doesn’t get rattled. He’s a mature young man.” His teammates say similar things about him, with DeRozan raving about his toughness and Lowry calling him “smart as s—.”
It’s how someone who is averaging only 8.3 points, 3.2 assists, 2.5 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 19.8 minutes per game has become a Sixth Man of the Year candidate and a difference-maker on the best team in the Eastern Conference. As much of a surprise as it might be to those who only knew about VanVleet because of a YouTube video that took place in an empty gym in Rockford, Illinois, some had an inkling that those qualities would be the reason he’d one day work his way onto an NBA team.
Maybe not this soon, but eventually.