This is part of a series of player review from the 2020-21 season. To find the remainder of the series, please click here.
It’s time to evaluate how each Raptor performed during the season and if there’s one thing that sticks out in a year where Toronto started a franchise-record 38 starting lineups, it’s that on any given night, someone needed to step up.
Looking back, several words can be used to describe the Raptors’ 2020-21 campaign. It was inconsistent, abysmal, unfortunate, and all the above. Feel free to leave more adjectives in the comments but regardless, the season didn’t go according to plan and by the time Toronto threw in the towel, it was already too late as the Raps had placed themselves dead-center in the middle of no-mans-land with a 27-45 record. Too good to be a top-five lottery team but not quite good enough for a play-in spot.
The longest playoff streak in franchise history came to an end, as did the longest streak for consecutive All-Star appearances. In fact, if any Raptor was going to be named an all-star last year, all indications were that Fred VanVleet made the most compelling case.
Congrats to all the East All Stars.
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 24, 2021
When the all-star reserves were announced, no Raptor was selected even though Toronto was fourth in the east at an even 17-17 and ahead teams like the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic, and Chicago Bulls, all of whom had one or two all-stars. Look, I understand the voting process takes weeks to iron out. But, based on the numbers, VanVleet should’ve made it. He even had the fourth-highest scoring game in the league when he dropped 54 on Orlando. But, he still couldn’t get the support he needed to earn his first all-star berth. Anyway, I’m done being bitter about that.
Earlier this year I detailed why Mr. Bet-On-Yourself should be Defensive Player of the Year, but it didn’t phase me when he wasn’t announced as a finalist for the award. Six-foot guards aren’t usually DPOY candidates. Nonetheless, he’s one of the best defensive guards in the league and at 27 years-old, there’s plenty of time for him to grow and get better. But, before we move forward, let’s take a (very, very painful) look back at what we can all agree was the most tumultuous, bizarre, and messiest season in NBA history.
Something that became very apparent with VanVleet was his streakiness. He either shoots the ball really well or very poorly. The compromise is obvious: his defense is elite and his three-point shot (37 per cent) is reliable. However, shooting the ball at 39 per cent simply wasn’t good enough. In fact, among players that averaged 19 points per game with 52 or more appearances, VanVleet ranked last in field goal percentage. With that being said, his midrange game has improved, as detailed by Louis Zatzman not long ago. But the problem isn’t that Fred takes bad shots.
He was left wide-open (six feet from a defender) on almost one-third of his field goal attempts and only converted on 38 per cent, placing him within the bottom 10 of eligible players. His playmaking ability and keen sense of who’s open, has considerably gotten better, ranking second in assists for the Raptors. He protects the ball like it’s Freddy Jr., as evidenced by his 3.45 assist-to-turnover ratio and with the ability to take care of the ball (only 1.6 turnovers a game) on more than six assists a game, would make you think he’s a multi-year, seasoned-vet when he’s only in his third year as an integral part of the team. Not bad, especially if Kyle Lowry changes his work drip for next season.
But what about that 54-point explosion? The most ever scored by an undrafted player and a franchise-high for the Raptors. Obviously he’s able to get his buckets efficiently, so it’s just a matter of consistency. Being option one, two, or three and averaging 37 minutes a game is also a huge factor for VanVleet shooting almost 20 per cent of Toronto’s total field goal attempts. Back to his career night; the exceptional offensive showing was accompanied by a solid defensive effort with three blocks and three steals. Fred was a force on both sides of the ball that night and even though it’s inconceivable that he’ll do THAT on a consistent basis, the standard should be set closer to last years average of 46 per cent.
In summary, VanVleet has proven to be a capable scorer and with a little more consistency, his presence on the offensive end could’ve matched his effort on D.
If anything stuck out about VanVleet’s 2021 campaign, it was his defense. Like I mentioned before, nobody championed him as DPOY like I did and although it was a long shot, he still has a chance to make an All-Defensive team. But, if he doesn’t I’m sure he’ll use as fuel to come back hungrier next season. The thing about his defense is that it’s unrelenting. He ranked third in steals per game and although his defense alone wasn’t enough to swing games, his on-off difference of 8.5 suggests Toronto was decidedly better with him on the court.
VanVleet played every game like he was on a mission to silence anyone that doubted him and/or Toronto. He’s already won a championship, earned himself a nice payday (many people argue that the contract he signed last year now looks like a bargain) and yet he’s still diving for loose balls and waving his arms around on defense like he’s an inflatable tube dancer. But, he wants more, as evidenced by his play. He led the league in deflections with almost four per game, and recovered the seventh-most loose balls. This tells me just how much of a dog he really is. His hustle on the court is also telling of his demeanor away from the hardwood.
Fred’s leadership is invaluable for Toronto. You see him talking to his teammates on every play, calling for cutters, directing traffic and calling plays. On February 9, Nick Nurse was ejected in a game against the Memphis Grizzlies and although the assistant coaches were available, VanVleet took it upon himself to be an extension of them. It’s something he does all the time but even when the other leaders lose their cool, Fred remains cool, calm, and collected.
Taking some of the younger players under his wing is something he’s done, particularly with Malachi Flynn. In this interview he’s like a proud big brother talking about his younger brothers ongoing maturation process. He can’t help but smile and describes their similarities as “scary”. Flynn has gone on-the-record talking about how he studied VanVleet’s game due to their similar stature. Yours truly wrote about why Flynn is imperative to the Raptors future so feel free to dig into that.
Overall, Fred VanVleet is a centrepiece that Toronto will continue to build around for years. He’s proven himself as a true leader, feisty defender, and confident shooter. He’s already outplaying his now three-year deal and all signs point towards him being a foundational piece for the Raptors for a very long time.