It was in December that I haughtily called Fred VanVleet an elite NBA defender (damnit). After the third game of the NBA Finals, in which VanVleet started the third quarter and played brilliant defense on Steph Curry, I re-upped my argument. It turned out I was undershooting his value the whole time, shoehorning VanVleet as a defender when I should have acknowledged the totality of his greatness.
It’s time to rectify that mistake.
We know the story. VanVleet was struggling in the playoffs, averaging a measly 4.0 points a game over his first 15 games. He was shooting 25.6 percent from the field and 19.5 percent from deep. He seemed unplayable against the incredible size of the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks. Then between games three and four against the Bucks, VanVleet had his second child, a son named Fred jr. He said that the event gave him perspective, which likely helped him break out of the slump. Over the final nine games of the playoffs, VanVleet averaged 14.7 points per game while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 52.6 percent from deep. He added 2.4 assists, 2.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steals per, while only turning the ball over 0.8 times per game. When he was on the floor over those games, the Raptors outscored their opponents – the Bucks and defending champion Golden State Warriors – by 73 points, the highest mark on the Raptors. His 30 made 3s since the birth of his son was tied – with Steph Curry, who VanVleet checked in the finals – for the most in the NBA. VanVleet’s turnaround was unprecedented, unlike anything the NBA has ever seen.
In the end, it was VanVleet closing out the Warriors. Not Kawhi Leonard, who won Finals MVP. Not Kyle Lowry, Toronto’s second all-star who scored the team’s first 11 points in the deciding game six. It was the undrafted VanVleet was busy winning a G-League championship only two years previous.
Those three 3s were part of VanVleet’s 22 points in the deciding game six. He hit the most 3s in the game and scored more points than Steph Curry. His 12 points in the fourth quarter were the most among all players, more than Curry and Andre Iguodala and Leonard and Lowry combined. While the whole world watched slack-jawed, VanVleet alone was unimpressed.
“It’s just like a weird feeling because I’m not as astonished or amazed because we kind of expected to do this,” said VanVleet. “I expect myself to have big games, I expect myself to do that. I kind of hold myself to that standard. And when I don’t play that well I’m upset, and when I do it’s like OK good job, we’ll try to play even better next time. I guess just the amazement for me is just not the same for me as everybody else.”
“You feel some sense of pride in knowing that you were right all along, or that you were right for believing in yourself,” he added later.
Surprised or not, VanVleet’s outrageous game six was unprecedented, even by his own standard. He had a very good season, but his skills as an on-ball creator are developing. Though he is an excellent catch-and-shoot specialist, hitting 41.2 percent during the year, his pull-up triples were less accurate. He made only 32.1 percent all year, averaging fewer than two such attempts per game. Statistics are thrown out the window in the span of a single game, however, where players can easily surpass or fall short of their expected numbers. VanVleet shot past his statistical expectations like Icarus, except the Warriors were the sufferers, melting and falling in the face of VanVleet’s solar eruption.
VanVleet hit all three pull-up triples he attempted in the fourth quarter of a championship-clinching game. He was the most important player for the most important minutes of the Raptors’ most important game in franchise history. Let that sink in. Nick Nurse had the simplest explanation for VanVleet’s momentous turnaround.
“Well, the good news and the bad news about Fred is he’s incredibly tough, right?,” said Nick Nurse. “And that’s good news, because he needs to be to do what he did in those games. He’s unbelievably tough physically, and mentally, like beyond belief. Sometimes he’s too tough. And that was probably — he probably played through so many minor injuries — or probably a little more than minor — that he wasn’t playing up to his capabilities, and he wouldn’t say anything to anybody. So when he was healthy this year, man, he was unbelievable. And even the games that he didn’t shoot it very well he was always really good. We’re lucky to have him.”
It’s only natural to project VanVleet’s heroics forward and conjecture whether he is now fit to be the Raptors’ starting point guard once Lowry takes his last charge and hangs up the hustle for good. That very conversation sparked the first disagreement in recorded history between myself and podcaster extraordinaire, Samson Folk. (Don’t worry, we haven’t yet allowed the squabble to derail our courtship.) The disagreement hinged on whether we thought VanVleet’s ability to initiate the offense would allow him to be a starting point guard in the future. After watching him close the door on one of the greatest dynasties of NBA history, like the Duke of Wellington sealing Napoleon’s fate at the Battle of Waterloo, it’s too easy to fall into the trap of thinking VanVleet can maintain his giant-slaying status for the foreseeable future.
Maybe he can. Maybe VanVleet is actually one of the greatest shooters in NBA history. Far more likely is that he just rode a hot streak at the right moment. It’s happened plenty before, if not often in such high-leverage moments. I have confidence that VanVleet will become a starting point guard – even if he isn’t at that level quite yet – because his pick-and-roll passing will develop. He’s shown the ability to add nuance to his game as required, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t in the future. But for now, it doesn’t really matter one bit.
“It’s weird because we always need something to chase, we need something to aspire to to be better, and so it’s hard to be content,” said VanVleet. “I kept looking around like, all right what do we do now? What’s next?”
The point is, it’s easy to let ethereal projections into the future derail our enjoyment of the solidity of the present. Guessing about the future can be more fun than enjoying what’s at hand. VanVleet could become an all-star. It’s also possible – though immensely unlikely – that this is the peak of his career, and he doesn’t improve from here. Probably the most likely scenario is that he grows into a better and better version of himself, while still filling into the role of a 3-and-D guard and a secondary initiator. At the moment, however, none of that matters. An NBA championship is worth everything, and the moments that build into the title are worth more, are longer moments, are stretched into eternity. Time is, after all, a flat circle. VanVleet’s future matters immensely. But for now, it is dwarfed by the magnitude of his present. VanVleet won one vote for Finals MVP, and he deserved that vote. On a floor full of giants, for a few endless minutes, Fred VanVleet Sr. stood the tallest.