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Fred Van Vleet: NBA Closer?

Should he have closed Sunday?

It is somewhat of an understatement to say that Fred Van Vleet has had a meteoric rise in his short NBA career. Originally undrafted after four years at Wichita State (three with great success), Van Vleet managed to crack an NBA squad as the 15th man on the Raptors’ roster. We all know the story from there: a 905 championship, occasional Raptors’ minutes, and a steady presence whenever on the floor for either team. And now, Van Vleet is playing game-deciding minutes against the best statistical team in the East, the Boston Celtics.

Dwane Casey explained why he wanted his miniature point guard on the floor against the Celts: “Fred gave us a lot of grit and grind defensively.” Per Eric Koreen, Van Vleet also offered the Raptors another ball handler beside Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka.

Owing to the facts that Van Vleet is defensively handicapped due to his size and didn’t meaningfully touch the ball in the last 3 minutes, thus negating his ball handling skills, on the surface Coach Casey may have made a poor rotation choice (at least by his own reasoning). Van Vleet chilled in one corner or the other on every offensive possession down the stretch save one, and he was unable to contest this Jayson Tatum layup due to his size:

What can Van Vleet do in this situation? He may as well not have been there. For all we talk about the similarities between Lowry and Van Vleet, it takes a unique defensive brilliance to be able to take charges and defend in the post like Lowry. Van Vleet, at the risk of stating the obvious, cannot offer that. In 2017-18, opponents have shot 70.6% from within 6 feet when guarded by Van Vleet, which is 9.1% higher than their expected field goal percentage.

Van Vleet is a strong player, no bones about it. But should he have been playing in the fourth? Let’s go through his contributions. He began the quarter on the floor alongside an all-bench mob. This was questioned by a large number of Raptors writers / Twitter hooligans immediately, who insisted that Kyle Lowry had played few minutes in the game due to foul trouble, so this was a good chance to get some time for the vaunted Lowry+bench lineup without over-extending the star guard’s minutes. Didn’t happen.

But Van Vleet played well, even hitting a jumper and some free throws! He played until the 6-minute mark, when he was replaced by DeRozan, who entered the game as part of an impressive-looking lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, C.J. Miles, Anunoby, and Ibaka. However, Van Vleet checked in a few minutes later to replace Miles, and he finished the game. Like every Raptor other than DeRozan, he did nothing on the offensive end; it is hard to fault him for this.

On the plus side, Van Vleet consistently put pressure on Terry Rozier bringing the ball up the floor, swiped the ball from Al Horford once, and drew the controversial charge on Jayson Tatum to give DeRozan the chance to win the game.

Van Vleet had another important play that didn’t show up in the box score.

Right before eating some elbow, he set a nifty 2-1 screen for Lowry and slipped it, dashing open for a 3. A free-passing, egalitarian, assist-heavy offense would have given him the ball. Lowry instead chose to give the ball to DeRozan, who drew a screen from Ibaka, and isolated against Horford on the switch. He missed.

Translation: The Raptors improvised a simple play, and it took the Celtics by surprise. The defenders screwed up, and the Raptors chose not to capitalize.

So was playing Van Vleet a poor rotation choice? The other options at the position were Miles, for extra shooting, or Delon Wright, for the same strengths as Casey listed: defense and ball-handling. Neither likely could have stopped Jayson Tatum’s drive. But could either have stripped Horford? Drawn the charge on Tatum?

Fred Van Vleet was not the problem at the end of the Celtics game, which is not what I was expecting to write when I saw him check back into the game with only 3 minutes remaining. He has consistently silenced his critics, and he has a net rating on the season of +12.5 despite only shooting 1 of 13 on 3s so far during this young season. I’d take his open wing 3 over DeRozan’s 20-footer contested by Horford any day.

The Raptors have played well during Van Vleet’s time on the court ever since they signed him as their 15th man. He has been empowered whenever on the court during the first three quarters to play his own way. He takes over half of his shots at the rim, which is rare for a point guard, let alone one so small. He passes well and keeps the ball moving, which is a necessity for the offense-starved all-bench units Casey insists on employing. But in the last few minutes of the game, Van Vleet is shackled. His happy game grinds to a halt as DeRozan takes over.

The Van Vleet rotation choice was not the issue against Boston; in fact, no rotation choice can be an issue when the team has no offensive diversity. Anthony Doyle wrote a telling statistic in his article about the Raptors’ closing offense: “In game situations where the Raptors are behind by 5 or less points or tied in the last five minutes this season, DeRozan has a 52.7% usage rate, a 30.0% effective field goal percentage, and a -41.6 net rating.”

The Raptors are blessed with depth. One cannot bemoan Van Vleet his minutes, especially now that Norman Powell will be on the shelf in the short-term. In the big picture, I don’t bemoan the Raptors loss as loudly or as fervently as other Raptors fans (although Casey defending the last shot and ignoring the several wasted possessions before that is concerning). The Raptors are in the process of changing, which takes time. Losing the old way is fine, which I’ve repeated to myself way more times than I care to admit.

Perhaps it is more significant simply to appreciate the dazzling rise of Fred Van Vleet. I doubted whether he should be playing against Boston, but he offered more good than bad. The second year guard has made headway during his short stint in Toronto, even to the extent that he’s making positive crunch time contributions. Criticize Casey if you want, or criticize DeRozan if you must. But commend Van Vleet, for he deserves it.

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