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In Praise of Fred VanVleet

The Raptors have a problem that many teams only dream of: Depth at the point guard position. As the NBA continues to evolve so does the position of floor general. It’s not enough to drive to the basket and find the open man. Point guards need to shoot the three, guard the perimeter, attack the basket and play lockdown D. They also need to be long. Of the five point guards projected to go in the top ten of the upcoming draft (Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, De’Aaron Fox, Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith) only Smith is under 6’3″.

Delon Wright continues to be projected as the point guard of the future for the Raptors, and rightly so. Listed at 6’5″ Wright has the length, handles and court vision to make fans and general managers salivate and there’s been times this season when it all comes together like most recently against Miami when he dropped 13 points, grabbed seven rebounds, and added three assists and two steals. There’s no denying his talent but with Kyle Lowry set to return the Raptors would be wise to give some more attention to a less obvious candidate.

Fred VanVleet is listed at 6’0″ on the nose and that feels generous to say the least. He’s almost two years younger than Wright (February of 1994 compared to April of 1992) and yet he’s viewed as a desperation placeholder. Maybe it was the four years of college that dragged down his reputation as if twice winning the Larry Bird Trophy for MVC Player of the Year or being part of a Shockers team that made it to the Final Four and Sweet 16 in his four years was a negative. In a recent interview with HoopsHype VanVleet touched on just how important those four years were to his game today:

“For one, I’m more mature. You have to be able to handle this day in and day out. If you aren’t right mentally, if you haven’t prepared and put yourself in position to succeed, you’re going to struggle when you get out there no matter how talented you are. You have to be ready to go and be mature. I think the things I went through helped me. For example, I went through an injury last year, which gave me a new perspective altogether. I may not have the NBA experience yet, but I have life experience. I was already a man, from the moment I got here.”

That maturity may be intangible, but it’s certainly evident. VanVleet has made the most of his opportunity in a Raptors uniform after they took a chance on the undrafted rookie and his play this year speaks volumes. During a strange weekend in February when it appeared Cory Joseph had earned himself a trip in Coach Dwayne Casey’s doghouse, VanVleet was asked to backup Kyle Lowry. He responded with 15 points in 23 minutes against Orlando and 10 points in 21 minutes against Brooklyn. For all of the production, there may have been a lack of style and that sits just fine with Casey:

“He didn’t blow by, use his explosiveness as much (Sunday in Brooklyn) as he did in Orlando but I liked the way he quarterbacked,” Casey said after that win. “He had four assists, knocked his free throws down in the end and I thought he did a good job defensively.”

For the next seven games VanVleet switched between the D-League and the Raptors’ bench as Cory Joseph crawled out from under Casey’s thumb but he had done enough to be called upon again. When Kyle Lowry went down it opened up another opportunity for VanVleet, but with a healthy Delon Wright now standing in his way the minutes would be harder to come by. Still, he stayed focused and when Wright struggled VanVleet was quick to bring his brand of energy and maturity into the game. In the three games he’s reached at least 18 minutes the Raptors have won twice and he was arguably the biggest spark (outside of Ibaka’s right fist) in the Raptors’ biggest win of the year against Chicago.

VanVleet’s play is the definition of unspectacular, but his steadiness is a valued commodity in a rookie point guard. His per 36 averages of 13.1 points, 3.9 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 2.2 steals are nothing to shake your head at. He’s shooting 36 percent from three and 89 percent from the line and while he drastically needs to improve at the rim, shooting down open threes and your shots at the charity stripe can swing a playoff game in a hurry. Yes, a playoff game.

Kyle Lowry is going to return in time for the postseason, and that brings us back to the problem of depth. The Raptors will have four point guards all capable of providing very different things to the game but two of them come loaded with question marks. Wright’s potential is off the charts but with it comes risks. The chances of either of them seeing the floor for meaningful playoff minutes are slim, but wouldn’t you rather trust the ball to a player you can count on?

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