Breaking down Fred VanVleet’s masterpiece start to the 2020-21 season

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Photo from CBC.ca

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you may miss it.

Ferris Bueller of course taught us that, but perhaps the lesson is equally delivered by Fred VanVleet’s start to this season. We can get focused on the future. On paths to improvement. On potential. But VanVleet is proving to us that potential is just the shadow cast by the current output of a player. When the light of perspective shifts, so too does our understanding of what a player may become. A school day can become a day off. Or a point guard who’s too small can become the leading sub-six foot shot blocker in the history of the NBA.

Yet VanVleet’s present is the most interesting thing about him.

VanVleet currently leads the Toronto Raptors in innumerable categories. Of course, he leads the team in points, shot attempts, three-pointer attempts, and steals, while ranking second in assists. But he’s also hugely valuable in a variety of other, more specific areas. He has become Toronto’s offensive lynchpin, the player who perhaps best defines the offensive structure and ceiling, although an argument could be made for Pascal Siakam as well. Here are the various elements that make up VanVleet’s offensive value.

Off-ball

When VanVleet entered the NBA as a polished yet undrafted rookie, it was his value off the ball that allowed him to see minutes on the court. That first season, he played only 7.9 minutes a game, but he fired up a sizeable-for-his-minute-total 0.8 threes; that balances out to 3.6 attempts per 36 minutes. He connected at a rate of 37.9 percent. Those numbers swelled in the coming years. VanVleet soon was playing 20-plus minutes off the bench and firing up three or four triples a game. He hit them at an unbelievable rate. In fact, for his entire career he’s never connected at a rate lower than 40 percent on catch-and-shoot threes. He scampered around off ball, relocating, running the baseline, and even setting solid screens. When the ball found his hands, it usually ended up as one of the best shots a halfcourt offense could generate.

That has remained true this season for VanVleet. He’s only improved at moving around teammates’ actions to keep passing lanes available. He is currently shooting 40.6 percent on a beefy 4.7 catch-and-shoot threes per game, putting him on a distinctive list of only 23 players currently attempting 4.0 or more catch-and-shoot threes and connecting on 40 percent or better.

VanVleet offers more than shooting off the ball. He’s a solid screen-setter, both on or off ball. On ball, he can slip and use a quick maneuver to sow a moment of chaos for defenders.

He prefers, however, to set solid picks and create contact. Off ball, he’ll use screens to draw attention to himself as a known relocating shooter, thus freeing up cutting space for teammates, which can even cascade back into an opening for VanVleet himself. As Kyle Lowry has done for almost a decade in Toronto, VanVleet is becoming a master at setting a physical screen before darting around one set for him.

He also helps the team get easier looks by avoiding the half-court entirely; when he plays, the team plays in transition 2.1 percent more frequently, which is an 88th-percentile mark.

VanVleet’s off-ball skills aren’t unique to him on the Raptors. Lowry and Pascal Siakam both impact the frequency of transition shots to a greater extent than VanVleet. That list of high-volume, high-accuracy catch-and-shoot shooters includes OG Anunoby and Norman Powell, which actually gestures to the fact that offering value as a floor-spacer and even a shot-creator without the ball is a quality that isn’t unique to VanVleet. Just last season, VanVleet shot better off the catch than this year. It’s a baseline that he offers, but unlike in his early years, it’s far from the only offensive skill he brings to the table.

I asked Nick Nurse about how to balance VanVleet’s contributions on or off the ball. When should VanVleet run the team, and when should he use his team-best shooting to space the floor for teammates? Nurse admitted that “it’s a question we put some thought into.

A lot of it goes to the feel of the game, I think there’s certain nights when his pick-and-roll game is there. I think maybe it’s matchup-driven, maybe it’s scheduling, minute he’s played; whatever it is that the pick-and-roll game seems to be flowing really smooth and rhythmically for him, and then there’s nights when he doesn’t seem to be as effective, and then those nights get him off the ball and let someone else do those things. And he ends up playing more as a catch and shoot guy, which is good.

It’s a good question because it’s something that’s in the forefront of my mind right now. I’m trying to figure out when and how to maybe make that shift, or what part of the game or what game to do it and things like that, how it looks in the fourth quarter, all those kinds of things.

I’m just glad he’s versatile, I’d love all my guards and wings to be able to play pick and roll and be catch and shoot guys so we can kind of be versatile that way.”

On-ball

VanVleet has, to put it bluntly, become Toronto’s primary on-ball threat. Put another way, VanVleet functions at least as often as Toronto’s point guard as Kyle Lowry.

Not included in the graph, but VanVleet also leads the Raptors in time of possession, dribbles per touch, seconds per touch, and even front court touches — because he drives so frequently. The point is that VanVleet is on the ball a lot.

The transition to VanVleet’s current role was, as recently as last season, bumpy. His having the ball in his hands doesn’t just mean he’s controlling the offense; it also means he spends less time off the ball. And VanVleet is so incredibly deadly off the ball — again, a catch-and-shoot triple from VanVleet marks pretty much an optimal conclusion to a possession — that there’s a risk to taking away the percentage of time he spends wreaking havoc in that role. Such an orientation only works if VanVleet is at least as effective with the ball in his hands, which is a big ask, and wasn’t really true last season.

It is now.

Shooting

VanVleet’s on-ball effectiveness begins at the arc and moves in. Perhaps most importantly, he has improved dramatically as a pull-up shooter. This season he’s shooting a solid 36.3 percent on a massive 4.0 pull-up threes a game, the 14th-most attempts in the league. Last season, VanVleet shot significantly below average on pull-ups, hitting just 32.3 percent. That gap is the gap between 1.09 points per possession and 0.97, or the difference between the best halfcourt offense in the league — Brooklyn averages 1.06 points per play — and the the 15th-best halfcourt offense in the league — Toronto (!) averages 0.97 points per play. That means VanVleet has turned his pull-up three from a league-average half-court offensive outcome just last season to one of the best possible ones this year.

This is huge for Toronto. It has a cavalcade of results for the Raptors. The first effect is obviously more efficient offense. That’s good! But the gap between four pull-up threes at 36.3 percent and 32.3 percent is about half a point. Not huge. But defenses have to react, or VanVleet would be taking far more pull-ups per game. Now when VanVleet handles in the pick-and-roll, guard defenders have to chase him over screens or else concede an extremely valuable shot to Toronto, and perhaps just as valuable, the Raptors wouldn’t have to work hard at all to create it.

So if defenses take away VanVleet’s pull-up three, he faces a moment in time against a big and without too much other help, although other defenders are in the process of closing the gaps as quickly as possible. If the big are playing drop, VanVleet has also added a mid-range pull-up to his game this season. This season, he’s hitting 40.8 percent on pull-up twos, which isn’t going to break the bank, but is enough to squeeze by in a pinch. Last season, that mark was 28.8 percent, and he more than doubled his attempts; this represents a huge area of growth for VanVleet.

Last season, the Boston Celtics defanged Toronto’s offense in the playoffs by forcing VanVleet to attack bigs in space. Toronto managed between 0.74 and 0.95 points per play in all seven grueling games of the series. Part of that was because VanVleet was unable to punish the Celtics inside the arc. He was blocked, on average, once a game, and he shot 6 of 20 in the space in between the paint and the three-point line. Boston’s defense gave VanVleet opportunities, and he couldn’t convert. If Toronto faces the same defensive strategy in the playoffs this season, VanVleet is equipped to create excellent offensive opportunities with his new skill-set.

That difficulty was surely a contributing factor why he came into this season with such improvements in his game. Pull-up shooting gives him even more ways to be effective with the ball and more ways to find his shot against different types of defenses. The mid-range game isn’t his primary threat, but it’s enough of one to punish opponents for overplaying him while also creating more opportunities for himself in the areas in which he thrives.

Passing

On the surface, VanVleet’s passing hasn’t improved from last season. He averages 6.6 assists per game in 2020-21, and he averaged 6.6 per game in 2019-20. But there’s more to passing than the final assist number.

For one, VanVleet’s turnovers are down despite averaging more touches, shots, and minutes than he did last season. In fact, his ability to limit his team’s turnovers is perhaps his current highest-value trait as an on-ball creator. When VanVleet is on the court, Toronto commits 3.5 percent fewer turnovers, a 97th-percentile mark behind, among high-volume ball-handlers, only James Harden, Devonte’ Graham, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. VanVleet commits very few turnovers himself, but he also limits his team’s carelessness to a massive degree. That’s how Toronto averages a significantly more points per possession with VanVleet playing despite them shooting worse at the rim and from deep; limiting turnovers while dominating the ball and creating for others is hugely advantageous.

That’s true even when VanVleet is in dynamic, complex situations. Among the 55 players who average 10 or more drives per game, VanVleet is the most frequent passer, finishing 61 percent of his drives with a pass, yet he averages the ninth-lowest turnover percentage, at only 5.2. Put another way, of his 515 drives, his assist-to-turnover rate is 72 to 27. And his improved ability as a scorer with the ball in his hands means that he draws more help and thus has wider passing lanes when he’s driving.

VanVleet’s added touches this season have mostly gone to extra passes. While his touches have gone up by 6.0 this season, he has added 2.3 extra field goal attempts and 4.0 extra passes. (The gap there is from the extra possessions he’s saved with his fewer turnovers). Those extra passes have not meant extra assists, interestingly. They have meant 1.0 extra potential assist. But even more meaningful than the would-be assists is where VanVleet’s passes are actually going.

Last season, VanVleet’s teammates attempted 11.1 2-pointers and 8.5 3-pointers per game off of his passes. Both extremely solid marks, but they shot only 47.8 percent on those twos and 35.8 percent on the threes, which aren’t horrible, but are below average for what you’d expect coming from a starting point guard.

This season, VanVleet has passed for fewer twos and more threes: an equal share, with teammates attempting 9.6 of both after his passes. Yet their percentages have improved, hitting 49.8 on twos and a far superior 38.7 percent on threes. Those small gaps mean a fairly large boost from VanVleet’s creation. In fact, VanVleet’s most important teammates by and large see a large boost in their shooting with VanVleet on the court.

Such an impact was far murkier last season, with his teammates shooting more or less the same with VanVleet on or off the court. Even if VanVleet’s assists — an overall metric with which to judge his passing — haven’t budged, it’s clear that his passing has a more positive impact on his teammates’ success this year than ever before. He isn’t yet a superstar passer, but he’s in the next tier down. That’s massive headway.

Finishing

We come at last to the weakness of VanVleet’s offensive profile. He is currently shooting 49 percent at the rim, which ranks in the 16th percentile, leaguewide. That means from VanVleet that an attempted layup on average means fewer points than an attempted pull-up three, which is not how basketball is supposed to work.

VanVleet has incredible craft as a finisher, with great touch and English, but he’s not able to overcome his size deficit and function as a consistent finisher over long stretches of times. In one of my previous dissertations on VanVleet — this has become something of a bi-annual tradition for me, at this point — I recognized that perhaps Lowry could offer VanVleet something of a path to above-average finishing.

Over Lowry’s first four years, he shot 51.7 percent at the rim, similar to VanVleet’s first four.

 What changed after his first four seasons for Lowry? He started using his strength more than his speed or leaping ability, simplifying his attempts, and using his body to attack opponents on the ground during his gather rather than allow them an opportunity to attack his shot in the air. VanVleet should have that same gene; like Lowry, he’s incredibly strong for his size, and he thinks the game at a genius level. Yet somehow it hasn’t translated. It took Lowry until his fifth season to shoot 60 percent at the rim. This is VanVleet’s fifth season, and he is still below 50 percent.

VanVleet has a bag as deep as any in the NBA around the rim. He has eurosteps, finger rolls, spinning drop shots, up and unders, and that only scratches the surface. There’s a reason he was the face of AND1. But until he consistently removes defenders from the play before he goes up, he probably will never become a consistent finisher. Such attempts are few and far in between for VanVleet, and though they are less aesthetically appealing than his average attempt, they are more effective.

Finishing remains VanVleet’s path to superstardom on offense. He has added practically everything else. If he can become as efficient around the rim as he is behind the arc, then VanVleet’s offensive game is right on track to simulate Lowry’s. And Lowry has been an offensive star for the better part of a decade.

But look at me; I’m already getting lost in potential. Such is reality in the NBA. The future is so often more appealing than the present. But VanVleet’s present is devastatingly impressive. He’s been out for a handful of games now, and the Raptors have struggled without him (in addition to lacking Siakam and Anunoby, of course). VanVleet has become an offensive star with the box score and metric numbers to support that case. Defensively, VanVleet is even better, and Raptors Republic will have more on that in the coming days.

Forget the future. VanVleet has already surpassed any reasonable expectations in the present. He is already a star on both sides of the ball. VanVleet develops pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you may miss it.

All stats are correct through games played on Sunday March 14.

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