2017-18 Player Review: Fred VanVleet

Fred VanVleet picks his spots.

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Fred VanVleet is on vacation. If you have any proclivity for scoping out the summer vacation locations and activities of NBA players in your every waking moment from late May into September like I do then you already know this but if you don’t, then I’m pleased to be the bearer of sun-glancing-off-a-snorkel-freshly-breached-from-some-distant-tropical-sea news.

Fred VanVleet is on vacation because, most tangibly, he decisively led the bench in what would be their breakout season. While the bench worked best in tandem, with every guy there to intuitively support the others in a growing, mad science kind of chemistry that was exhilarating to watch, VanVleet was always the alchemist.

While his minutes per game steadily climbed throughout the season, averaging around 15 at the start and 30 after the All-Star Break, VanVleet did not eclipse anyone, the composition of the bench unit did not change instead they only became more effective, more explosive to watch. If there was any doubt about the role Fred played in the Raptors now ubiquitous bench it was painfully disproved when he was forced to sit out the first five games (two minutes in Game 2 don’t count) against Washington in the playoffs. A unit that was so finely tuned, so effective and dominant, came apart. More than that, they looked lost.

If Fred is the thing that holds them together and keeps the bench humming, vibrating on a controlled frequency, then without them they were shook, oscillating every which way. The joy wasn’t there and it can be easy not to notice when it is because so much of what the 2nd unit does just feels like fun, and that kind of fun is effortless. When VanVleet came back in what turned out to be the last game against the Wizards it was like the team collectively came awake and remembered they could run a postseason game like that and the resulting win was so definitive, just straight up on purpose.

There were a lot of problems when it came to playing Cleveland in the postseason and we are not here to get into them but Fred really did push—at one point, specifically, LeBron James—in that series. For VanVleet, what it came down to was his shoulder and the slew of ways it affected his game from range of motion to shooting form, and at a higher level the speed and ease that’s typically fluid in his game. In no way do I think Fred was waffling when he choose to stay sparse with the details on his injury. The playoffs are a creature that needs to be fed a strict diet of conviction and audacity at all times and VanVleet had his hand poised over the snapping jaws of that demanding animal with determination, while his coaching staff answered the questions. But Fred is also incredibly sincere and forthright, and there was a sense of relief in his shoulders when he could address, explicitly, what was going on, once he knew for sure his team’s season was over. When he spoke of a long summer ahead in rehabilitation, training, and working on his game he gave the sense that he meant he would be starting the next day. He was himself, back to the pragmatic and steady player that brought his team through the year.

That relentless work ethic is what brought him to Toronto. It’s what had him declining two offers for the G League and opting instead to wait and secure a spot in the NBA’s 2016 Summer League with the Raptors, putting him in Toronto’s training camp. VanVleet was one of six players competing for the final spot on the Raptors’ roster and his patience paid off, he’d make his NBA debit that November—all of 26 seconds—but those early appearances, no matter how long, were methodical. Fred used every chance he got in the game to build his own, gaining the trust of his teammates who, like DeMar and Lowry, began to turn to him for his insight. By the time the rest of the league noticed he was already the glue guy, with quiet, consistent motivation that could turn games. Closing the season out, even if it was earlier than he or anyone hoped, one thing continues to be clear: Fred VanVleet picks his spots.

Very patiently, without a ton of pomp, or frankly, deserved league-wide lauding, VanVleet’s become the best possible personification of the franchise. The face of the team still looks like Lowry and DeRozan but the way it can work at its best, a combination of everybody collectively playing their parts with determination and the resolve to keep at it, are Fred characteristics writ large. As a player he embodied that long-held underdog mentality of what it can mean to be a Toronto sports team, let alone the lone league outpost still largely overlooked. But he was a beacon, a bright light flashing too persistently to ignore until the Raptors shifted to the spotlight.

And then VanVleet made us better, Fred gave us some grace. Because instead of a team, or a city, shrinking from the attention we’d become so comfortable complaining was absent, the Raptors tried it on. The fit was weird at first, a bit loose and later, potentially choking, but we all stepped into it because at 59 wins there was no arguing it wasn’t earned. The regular work was there, the part where the team showed up and stayed consistent and evolved beyond what had been previously their best, building trust and making room, staying steady. And there’s still work, a lot of work, that needs to happen in the owning it department, especially when it comes to carrying that over into the postseason, and that’s good. Work, VanVleet could tell us, is the identifiable part, it means there’s not a big question mark in terms of what needs to happen next. There are in fact several question marks, and they have to be addressed in sequence, taking what happened this year and using it to build toward the next because, like Fred, this isn’t a team that should take its shortcomings out of the equation, it all has to add up.

And he did that all while becoming a new dad. VanVleet’s wife, Shontai Neal, gave birth to their daughter, Sanaa Maria VanVleet, this past winter.

Personal bias aside—is it hyperbolic to say Fred VanVleet is an angel sent to this earth?—VanVleet is crucial for the next chapter of this team. Whoever Masai Ujiri decides will step into the presently vacant role of head coach will need to quickly come to learn the topography of the team. We all saw the end results but there’s not a clear answer (LeBron James aside) as to why. Fred has studied this landscape for a long time. His career depended on him seeing the gaps and working to make himself fit and once they disappeared, because he helped the team outgrow them, he found new spots to bolster and eventually positioned himself as part of the foundation instead of just the fixer. He’s already said he’s a loyal guy, that he’d like to stay, but he also deserves to get paid in a range that reflects how far he’s come. The question is going to come up this summer as to whether or not the Raptors can afford to keep him but better than that, can they afford not to?

So Fred VanVleet is on vacation. Because—how to put this besides “I told you so” (I did)—when you become the embodiment of an entire franchise, when you start to shoulder all the projections a city can put on you and the team’s complicated culture along with it, taking a breather is not a bad idea.