Fred VanVleet hoping to force Raptors into a tough decision

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The Dallas Mavericks are in the process of erasing the Toronto Raptors’ 15-point half-time lead. As the game clock dwindles in the third quarter, that gap is down to two.=. Fred VanVleet dribbles out the remaining 17 seconds, confidently steps to the 3-point line, and let’s fly with a triple that finds the bottom of the net.

It’s not the first time through three games at Las Vegas Summer League that VanVleet, backing up at point guard for the Raptors, shifted the momentum for his undefeated squad. He’s averaging 6.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.7 assists, and he’s hit 5-of-7 from long-range to help lead the second unit’s offense. Against Minnesota a day earlier, he was instrumental in helping kick-start a Raptors’ comeback in the second half.

“I told the team at the end, Fred really turned the game around for us. He was the key for us,” head coach Jama Mahlalela said Sunday. “I told the team, Fred was a difference maker.”

While VanVleet’s statistical production is modest, his impact is not. Ironically, what VanVleet offers is exactly what goes unnoticed in the frenetic confines of the Thomas & Mack Center here in July. VanVleet is smart, steady, and poised. He’s in control. At just 22 year old, he carries himself like one of the most experienced players here.

Though VanVleet went undrafted, his approach to the 11-day event is to treat it as if there’s nothing to prove. That he’s mostly alone in that regard is noticeable, but only if you’re looking.

“To be honest, the secret for me is just to be solid. It sounds cliché, but that stands out in the summer league,” VanVleet told Raptors Republic on Monday. “Most guys that were drafted high are trying to prove themselves and guys who nobody knows are trying to prove themselves. I’m just trying to be solid and pick my spots. I turned the ball over a bunch today but previous to that, try to take care of the ball. Be who I am and if it’s good enough, cool, if not, it’s not. But so far, so good.”

Despite the Wichita State product’s own evaluation of his ball control, he’s committed just two turnovers in 47 minutes, a calling card of his game. Mahlalela is leaning on him heavily, trusting him to lead groups that don’t contain any of the team’s five NBA players, and he’s deploying him alongside Delon Wright for familiar two-point sets. “The NBA is a pick-and-roll league and we have two of the best pick-and-roll players in Summer League,” Mahlalela says.

When VanVleet says “So far, so good,” he’s right, beyond just the team context. On Monday, Raptors Republic reported that VanVleet has agreed to terms on a multi-year, partially guaranteed contract with the Raptors, and that he’ll be in training camp with the club. It’s not an agreement that’s born of three strong games. This is a partnership that’s been in the making for months now.

For the Raptors, the deal is a no-brainer. The amount of the guarantee is unknown, but locking in a player they like to a flexible, team-friendly deal is a nice piece of business, whatever the outcome of the offseason and training camp. The Raptors don’t know exactly how that’s going to play out, but the chance to secure VanVleet was one they wasted no time getting to work on. While they didn’t own a second-round pick, they stayed in touch with VanVleet’s camp during the second round of the draft and deemed him the top player to slip through the cracks.

“He was one of my targets from the start of the draft process,” assistant general manager Dan Tolzman says. “I think he’s a complete pro. As soon as the draft was over, I got him locked in. He was kind of ‘our guy.'”

The admiration goes both ways, as does the ease with which the decision came. Some agents feel like their clients are better off, in some cases, going undrafted than being picked late in the second round. VanVleet had conversations with teams about potentially getting draft-and-stashed as a second-round pick, and if a team wanted to go that route, VanVleet would have little flexibility beyond forcing their hand and signing a completely non-guaranteed offer.

“Getting my name called was important but it wasn’t important enough for someone to own me with no chance of making the team and no chance of having options,” he says. “I made the decision with my family and my agent that, ‘Hey, alright, it’d be nice to hear my name called to prove a bunch of random people wrong that I couldn’t get drafted, but if we know there’s a team that was willing to take me, that’s good enough for me.’ I’m confident in myself, I’m betting on myself.”

As an undrafted free agent, he’s free to pick his landing spot. He also gets the benefit of getting to show his stuff in a further audition at Summer League, because, in his words, “A workout is not really gonna show what Fred VanVleet can do.” He’s right, again – leadership and the ability to run an offense don’t show well in a 3-on-3 or 1-on-1 setting, and VanVleet’s ability to read and manage a game manifests itself better in live action.

Once he accepted not being selected, he quickly saw the Raptors as a natural fit for Summer League and beyond.

“I love the organization. Love the front office and the coaching staff. I think there’s a good connection and good communication there,” he says. “I thought it made the best sense for me.”

Part of what drew VanVleet to the Raptors, beyond the quality of the organization, was the presence of Kyle Lowry. VanVleet hasn’t met Lowry yet, but he lights up talking about the similarly diminutive guard, with whom he shares some on-court strengths, and an agency.

“If they see him every day, maybe they’ll see some of the same traits in me. Obviously, we’re two different players but I look up to him a lot and try to take pieces from his game,” VanSleet says. “I’m looking forward to meeting him and learning from him. He don’t have to tell me anything, I just want to watch him up close and see how he sees the game. I’m really looking forward to that.”

He’ll get that chance soon enough, either during the offseason or in training camp. The question then turns to where VanVleet fits in the Raptors’ plans, something he’s trying not to worry about yet “I’m just focused on this week right now,” he says. That’s a good approach, as there’s not a lot of sense in trying to figure out what may happen between now and camp.

As it stands, VanVleet looks like the fourth point guard, which would pencil him on the outside of the regular season roster. There’s a chance the Raptors could slip VanVleet through waivers and make him an affiliate player in the D-League, if he’s willing, but it’s not a certainty he’d go unclaimed, and neither team nor player are looking at the addition that way right now.

“To me, he’s just too good to be undrafted,” Tolzman says. “I wanted to bring him in as insurance, because I think he’s an NBA player and a lot can change in free agency and training camp. I wanted to get a guy that was, if injuries or whatever happen, this guy’s ready to go. And I think he’s proven that he looks like an NBA player.”

None of that is to say the Raptors have any changes in their immediate plans. They’re just being realistic about what can happen over the course of an offseason. That can be hard on the player side, but the NBA’s crazy July served as a well-timed reminder to VanVleet about the fluidity of situations.

“At first it was like ‘Ah, damn, they got three point guards already.’ Then, like, the next day, Rose was on the Knicks, KD was on the Warriors, Wade was on the Bulls, so it was like, anything can happen,” he says. “Things happen, players move around all the time. All I can do is control what I can control and make them make a tough decision. That’s what I’ve been focusing on, is just being the best me and putting the pressure on them to make a tough call.”

That tough call’s a few months down the line, if it comes at all. VanVleet’s been impressing the Raptors since his college days, and he’s hit the ground running now that he’s within the organization. Even if things don’t end up working out with the Raptors this season, the chance to play a big role on a potential tournament champion is great exposure, and the early returns are encouraging.

“Over time, I feel I’m good enough, and it’ll show, and somebody will love it. Hopefully it’s the Raptors,” VanVleet says. “I feel good about how I’ve been playing. Obviously there’s a lot of things that go into front office decisions. All I can do is control what I can control and just keep working.”

For now, the focus is on getting this Raptors Summer League team to and through VanVleet’s most familiar and comfortable environment, and the format that put him on the radar in the first place – a single-elimination tournament.

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