Welcome back Fred. We missed you more than you’ll ever know. We knew VanVleet was a solid player last year, when he averaged 8.6 points and 3.2 assists per game, earning some buzz for Sixth Man of the Year. We knew he was a useful player earlier this year, when he capably plugged into the starting lineup whenever Lowry was gone, averaging 13.4 points and 5.7 assists per game when starting. We knew he was an exciting player Sunday night against the Detroit Pistons, when he knocked in 17 points on 4-for-5 shooting from deep in his first game back from injury. We didn’t quite know how masterful he was until his first quarter against the woeful New York Knicks on Monday night.
VanVleet finished the quarter with 8 points and 6 assists. His offence was calm, intentional, brilliant, visionary, etc. You get the point. Most of all, it was a breath of fresh air and/or a sigh of relief . VanVleet nestles snugly beside Toronto’s new ball-dominant stars, especially Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol. Much has been made of VanVleet working out with Gasol during his injury. Whether as a result of that work, or just because they’re two likeminded players who think the game ahead of their actions, they showed clear chemistry against the Knicks.
Remember earlier in the year when we complained that VanVleet couldn’t run the pick-and-roll? Apparently, he and Gasol work together like coffee and Bailey’s.
This second PnR is even more impressive. VanVleet slows his drive, keeps his man on his back, and draws the help defender. Then and only then does he dish to Gasol for the easy layup. This is Lowry-esque stuff.
VanVleet is not only comfortable hitting the roller, but his head is always up, surveying the floor. He has been accused of occasionally possessing narrow vision, but not this quarter. Here he keeps the defence guessing while slowing his drive and keeping all eyes on the ball. He waits for the play to develop around him. Then he hits OG Anunoby on the well-timed cut.
VanVleet is more than a primary weapon alongside bigs like Gasol or cutters like Anunoby. He’s at his best when leveraging all of his tools at once to break the defence’s form and spirit. To say, VanVleet is best as a connecting tool rather than an initiating attacker. Here the Raptors don’t score, and even if they did, VanVleet wouldn’t have hit the box score. But he did take a handoff, reject a screen, cut backdoor, kick to an open shooter in the corner, reposition, drive, and fire to an open shooter in the other corner. In one possession. In approximately six seconds. This is evil magic that results in the openest triple I ever did see.
VanVleet gives Toronto another threat in transition. His 1.22 points per possession in transition is stellar, only just behind far more lauded Siakam’s 1.25 mark. VanVleet is an elite shooter in transition, but he’s an underrated driver and finisher. Like always, his control and decisiveness stand out.
Lord beware the big who happens to be isolated on this little ball of fire. He is scoring 0.94 points per possession in isolation, which is above average, especially for a guard his size.
He doesn’t need the ball to be a danger. VanVleet is an elite shooter, especially off the catch, and especially especially from the corners. He is shooting 42.4 percent from deep on the catch and 46.7 percent from the corners this year. Damn, dude.
VanVleet is just as comfortable acting as a decoy. This play took place immediately after VanVleet knocked in the corner jumper. Here, he makes the same cut out of the same play, drawing defensive attention and allowing Lowry and Gasol to play tiki-taka together. VanVleet’s very presence on the floor gives breathing room to his fellow stars.
Hyperbole is fun, and to be totally honest, we have seen this from VanVleet before. This isn’t new. Furthermore, the Knicks are the Knicks. Which is to say, they are hopelessly terrible. They’d probably beat the Raptors 905 in a playoff series, but it wouldn’t be a sweep. All performances against the Knicks’ defence should come with an asterisk. It’s like batting in the home run contest. The pitches are… not tough to hit.
What does matter is that VanVleet slots in beautifully alongside Toronto’s stars, which we suspected but haven’t really had a chance to see yet since the Gasol trade. VanVleet’s reintegration to the lineup brings Toronto’s trustworthy playoff rotation to an even eight. (The ninth will vary based on matchups and the hot hand.) We know that VanVleet, Anunoby, and Ibaka/Gasol can dominate alongside the starters. Any worries about the bench, justifiable though they may be, should not carry over into the playoffs. Toronto can tighten its rotation, and poof! Those problems will vanish. That’s partially because of VanVleet.
VanVleet can dominate the Knicks all he wants, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that he will dominate every other team in the league. But it’s a good start, and it portends well for the future. For one quarter, he danced with discern through our dreams while dissecting a dreadful defence. What else is sports fandom for if not to enjoy performances like VanVleet’s?