Fred VanVleet had just stolen Norman Powell’s scrum.
While assembled media waiting on the Wichita State product to get interview-ready, lights and cameras focused on Powell one stall over. This has been somewhat of a common occurrence for Powell since his rookie breakout started in earnest last February. And his locker was the expected gathering place of post-game media, too, on a night when Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Jared Sullinger, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross, Cory Joseph, and Patrick Patterson all sat out. Powell earned the attention, putting on a one-man dunk contest against visiting San Lorenzo de Almagro, finishing with 17 points on 6-of-8 shooting with four assists and three steals in just 24 minutes.
Yet as VanVleet threw on a camouflage sweater and tip-toed to reach for the phone charge atop his locker – “Short people problems,” he griped – reporters tried their best to subtly shift to their left without disrupting Powell’s time. VanVleet, however, had no qualms about taking the attention from his new friend and partner in grind, especially once Powell interrupted in kind.
“I think we built that early on in Summer League,” VanVleet began to say when asked about their on-court fit together. “With just our approach to the game, aggressive, attacking, being physical, trying to impose our will defensively. Obviously, I don’t jump quite as high as he does. That’d be nice to have.”
“Cuz I’m the man,” Powell interjected. “You know I get buckets.”
“Yeah, yeah,” VanVleet conceded with a bit of an eye-roll. “He does. But no, it’s fun to play out there with him. We complement each other very well, and tonight, obviously, we had to set the tone.”
The pair have developed a quick chemistry off the court, united by the giant chips on their shoulders, their relentless approach to practice, and their desire to soak up every ounce of knowledge around them. On this night, they argue over whose grudge against the world is more warranted and, on the opposite side, who is more “big time” as a result.
“I joke with him all the time, he’s Big Time, because he feels like an underdog and I didn’t even get drafted. I’m the undrafted guy,” VanVleet argues. “We’ve got the same approach and the same background. He’s a little more Hollywood than I am, but you know, we click.”
“Fred just tries to hide that he’s a more big-time player than me,” Powell responds, laughing. “So he tries to put the heat on me.”
But who grinds harder?
“Ohhh, I don’t know,” VanVleet said.
“That’s tough,” Powell adds. “Yeah, I got the UTG. Understand the grind.”
“See, I never knew what that stood for,” VanVleet retorts. “I let the people do the talking. I don’t make my own hashtags.”
The chemistry is translating on the court, as well, where VanVleet and Powell make up an aggressive two-way guard pairing that’s been tough on opposing teams. They’re playing primarily against bench units or, in this case, Argentine champions, but second units are their likely opponents if they find themselves getting NBA run together, anyway. It’s perhaps a necessary competition caveat for Powell, who’s also fighting for regular rotation minutes while solidifying himself as the leader of the back half of the Raptors’ roster, but it’s not as if each player hasn’t had substantial time against opposing starters, either (VanVleet was given the Chris Paul trial-by-fire, for example).
With Powell’s confidence returning to form after a few shakier outings to begin the preseason and VanVleet very clearly MegaManning moves he’s picking up from Kyle Lowry and Cory Joseph in practice, the pair is getting better by the game, exactly the hope in camp. Powell and Delon Wright are fond of looking at themselves as a junior version of Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, and Wright may have to accept a third member of their young-guard fraternity, any two of whom could hope to maintain the attitude, demeanor, and approach of the All-Star pairing. Consider it the guard rotation Freebird Rule, if they all wind up on the team together.
It sounds as if VanVleet has Powell’s vote for the 15th roster spot, for what it’s worth.
“Me and Fred clicked instantly,” Powell said at practice this week. “We’ve got a similar mindset, a similar mentality. Especially coming in as a rookie, you want to prove yourself. Especially him, going undrafted, working his way trying to get a spot. I was in the same position, even though I was drafted. I was still hungry and trying to make the team and trying to carve out a role and get minutes. He has that same mentality.
“I just love the way he plays. he’s aggressive, that never-back-down attitude. We clicked instantly on the court and we have a good relationship off the court, always talking, always hanging out, always joking around. So I’m really glad that we have him now, and hopefully he can make the team.”
That’s perhaps looking a step too far ahead for VanVleet, who still has to crack the roster to ensure his new friendship can continue without serious charges to a Presto pass. VanVleet did his best in what may be his final large-sample audition Friday, completely taking over the second half and scoring in an array of manners on his way to 31 points, five rebounds, and five assists. But while Dwane Casey acknowledged VanVleet’s strong outing, the coach was upset, in general, with the team’s defensive play.
“Our defense tonight was non-existent…We had no defensive focus tonight whatsoever, and that’s what I was looking for. So tonight, I didn’t see a lot. So everything’s still in flux,” Casey said. “Fred did a good job. He did a solid job. he ran the team pretty well. They blitzed him, he did a good job of finding people, attacking with his speed, took some hits. But again, 122 points, offense is not our issue. Defense is our issue, and they lit us up in every way.”
Those comments apply more to the backup center competition between Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl more than they do to VanVleet specifically, but it’s worth remembering that the point guard’s candidacy may hinge on the team’s comfort – or lack thereof – with rolling with just two point guards, not just his performance. Jarrod Uthoff finally say time, Brady Heslip continued shooting well, and E.J. Singler continues to play quiet, mostly mistake-free basketball. Most notably, Drew Crawford got the start at small forward, a more obvious position of need once Wright is healthy, and continued to acquit himself well as a potential three-and-D bench piece.
“I think so. Honestly, I think I deserve it,” Crawford said. “It’s something I’ve worked for for a long time. I understand my role on this team, I understand what the things my coaches need me to do, and my teammates need me to do. I think I’ve been able to show what I can do, and hopefully it turns out well.”
The six players vying for the 15th roster spot may be out of meaningful preseason playing time to state their cases now, left to prove whatever’s left to prove in practice or in garbage time. VanVleet would seem to have the inside edge based on Wright’s injury, overall performance, and a genuine sense since draft night that the Raptors are high on him. He’s a player who approaches things “the Raptors way,” in the words of assistant coach Patrick Mutombo, and he and Powell are great examples of the type of mature, hungry youth the Raptors seem to value at the end of the roster.
If VanVleet and Powell do wind up sharing a space in the Raptors’ locker-room this season, it’s easy to see their quickly-formed bond growing. There will be plenty more friendly arguments, but VanVleet’s ready to at least concede on one front and unite their grinds.
“I’mma join on the #UTG bandwagon.”