2018-19 Player Preview: Fred VanVleet

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He did it. Fred VanVleet rose from undrafted afterthought to advanced stats god and finally secured the not-so-little moneybag in his “Bet On Yourself” merchandise logo. So, what happens now? Well, if you think he’s done rising, you haven’t been paying attention.

While it’s difficult to expect VanVleet makes a leap of similar magnitude to last year, it’d be downright foolish not to expect at least a noticeable uptick. That’s what VanVleet does: he works, and he improves.

It becomes that much easier to project improvement when you consider it took VanVleet about half of last season to solidify his spot in the upper rotation. It’s hard to believe based on the player we now know he is, but VanVleet didn’t even play twenty minutes in a single game last season until late November, and actually saw his minutes per game fall back into the teens during the month of January. For no reason other than a more consistent role, it seems undoubtable VanVleet progresses from a production standpoint.

To get a better analog of what kind of production to expect this coming season, one should look at his minutes from February onward. Starting February 1st, the since-departed Dwane Casey started playing VanVleet 23-24 minutes a game and his averages subsequently rose to 10 points and 4 assists per game. While those numbers aren’t all that sexy, it’s well established at this point that counting stats fail to encapsulate VanVleet’s full impact, so it’s a reasonable baseline to expect this coming season. Furthermore, with Demar DeRozan being replaced by a lower-minute player in Danny Green, VanVleet’s minutes are bound to rise even more, so 10 and 4 may be on the conservative side of the spectrum.

The main factor to consider in projecting VanVleet this year is the benefits he’ll accrue under Nick Nurse’s innovative regime. While the Bench Mob was known for shoving it down other bench units’ throats in transition en route to the best reserve net rating in the league, the traditional two-big lineups that VanVleet often closed games with was one of the slowest in the league, dragging the Raptors’ overall pace down to 14th in the league. If summer league is any indication, that pace will increase mightily this season as small-ball lineups become the norm under Nurse. For a player like VanVleet who thrives in transition, using his astronomic basketball IQ to see the play as it’s developing, this almost certainly would coincide with an uptick in production.

In addition, VanVleet will likely reap the benefits of the Nurse regime from a shooting perspective. During summer league, the Raptors shot 40 threes per 48 minutes (s/o Will Lou for the find) despite a predominantly shooting-averse roster, so it’s only logical the regular roster—which bolsters 8+ floor spacers– sees an increase from their 33 threes per game last season. This would be a welcome sight for VanVleet as he leads all returning players in 3P%, and yet, was only 5th in rotation players in 3-point rate this past year. With a greener light under Nurse, it seems inevitable VanVleet’s more of a scoring threat this season.

The last area where VanVleet is inclined to improve this year is finishing around the rim. Last season, VanVleet was pretty horrendous as he finished in the 1st percentile for runners and 17th percentile for around the basket finishing, despite 42% of his offence taking place in the 10 feet surrounding the basket (Per Synergy Sports). Based on the improved spacing provided this season by Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, and (maybe) Pascal Siakam, it seems intuitive those numbers rise. Moreover, VanVleet’s summer goals included becoming slimmer and quicker, and footage from the Rico Hines runs backs up his commitment to them. A quicker first-step mixed with his elite change-of-pace should make it easier to slither through the lane this season and find angles for his finishes and floaters.

Despite his meteoric rise last season, VanVleet still enters this year as one of the least recognizable names in the rotation (and least respected by 2K and the SI top 100) but make no mistake— he’s arguably the 3rd best player on this roster. Not in the way of flash and scoring, but in the same way that Josh Richardson is the best player on the Heat: he does every last one of the little things. A player of VanVleet’s caliber willingly coming off the bench this season speaks volumes to both his character and the depth of this Raptor team.

If VanVleet reaps the expected benefits of Nurse’s system and meshes with Leonard as well as he did DeRozan, it’s possible Jacob Goldstein‘s Player Impact Plus Minus prediction of VanVleet as the 40th most valuable player in the league this season ends up undershooting it. Either way, don’t be afraid to bet on him being an advanced stats god again this year—we know he won’t be.

You can keep up with all of our player previews here.

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