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Fr-eady or not: Can VanVleet fill the leadership void left by Kyle Lowry?

The tide has turned and Kyle Lowry's inevitable farewell has put the Raptors in an unfamiliar territory, at least dating back to June 2012. Going forward, this is Fred VanVleet's team. But does he have what it takes to lead Toronto back to the promised land?

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Via: NBA Canada / Getty Images

Now that the dust has settled on the Kyle Lowry-era in Toronto, and we know the greatest Raptor of all-time will don a Miami Heat jersey in the immediate future, some feel as though there’s an unmistakable emptiness left in the leadership department. Look. When Toronto acquired Kyle Lowry in 2012, nobody knew what to expect. Did anyone think the player and our city would have an unbreakable, unquestionable, and eternal love for one another? Probably not and if you did, please tell me what lottery numbers to choose next time I pick up tickets. I’ve debated this in my head over and over again. There are several indications that VanVleet is more than capable of taking on the role as Toronto’s undisputed leader. However, the franchise experienced their most successful years with Lowry at the helm. In fact, he was the only player that Masai Ujiri inherited when he was announced as the new executive vice president and general manager back in 2013. Can that success be duplicated without number seven?

First of all, let’s get something out of the way real quick. No one will ever replace Kyle Lowry. He’s become synonymous with this organization and this city. The heart of the matter is precisely whether or not Fred VanVleet can ignite and inspire the way Lowry did so many times.

During his end of the season presser, VanVleet was asked a heavy question right from the start. “You don’t know what’s going to happen with number seven. But as this team goes forward, it’s going to become your team. You’ll be the leader of it. Are you accepting of that role and looking forward to it? How can you grow into it?” was the question Doug Smith posed to VanVleet.

While Smith asked it, VanVleet took his time to think about it, making several facial expressions, combing his beard with his hands as if to signal that he was picking his words carefully. “Yeah, I mean. It’s been that way… for a while now… I’m kind of already comfortable in that role.” It’s not a deviation from the confidence VanVleet frequently has in himself and when you take into account the things he’s accomplished, especially as an undrafted player, it’s hard not to believe in him. Even when Kyle Lowry came to Toronto, he was an unproven commodity. So, why would it be any different for the heir apparent?

Off the court

Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster have made it no secret about their desire to play position-less basketball. Acquiring long and athletic players who have exhibited the ability to disrupt the oppositions scoring attempts is by all means a strategy that could work in todays NBA. However, the way a team conducts themselves off the court is just as integral to producing a winning formula compared to their actions on the court.

Let’s talk about the departing Lowry for example. During his last two seasons in Houston with the Rockets, he averaged almost 14 points, 6.6 dimes, and 4.3 boards, which led many to wonder if he’d been miscast with the Memphis Grizzlies, who’d tried to convince the young guard that backing up Mike Conley Jr. was an effective role for him. Maybe it was at the time, but Lowry soon realized it wasn’t for him. Regardless, those in and around league circles believed he had all-star potential throughout his time in Houston. His demeanor off the court and his reputation as a locker room headache was the the one puzzle piece preventing that all-star bid from coming to fruition. Eventually, he pieced it all together and we know the rest.

VanVleet, who’s image is that of a coaches dream rather than nightmare, shares the same traits Lowry developed in Toronto. Although he’s cultivated this confident, head-down, hard-working mindset since he joined the Raptors, it was during the 2017 NBA Summer League that he began to stand out. He put up some pretty numbers with 18.8 points, five assists, four boards and 1.5 steals while shooting 55.3 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from three, so naturally he was looked at as a leader for the summer league squad. And then, I found this gem:

Akil Augustine interviews VanVleet and asks him a question that’s once again relevant today:

“You’re one of the leaders of this group. You’re going to get significant playing time here at summer league. So, what do you try to showcase or at least show this coaching staff?” Cool as a cucumber, which is the phrase best-suited to describe him more than anyone I’ve ever seen, he answers “to dominate.” But that was four years ago during summer league, when nobody knew just how far that kid from Rockford, Illinois would go. Yet, here we are and VanVleet has graduated from summer league, likely to never return. Maybe as a bench boss, which is the future that some already see for him.

Ultimately, his mannerisms off the court exude his commitment to winning and his ability to lead. After going through a lot of tape, I’ve never once seen him slip-up and say something he eventually back-tracked on. He’s never been known as a problematic player, has no baggage, and when he talks, it’s all business. The only time his name made serious waves was when other teams were chasing him during free agency last summer. VanVleet has even spent time as a coach when he reportedly “stole” a coaches shirt last season while he directed his teammates from the sidelines. As Coach Nurse mentioned in the video above: VanVleet was born to lead. He’s always calm, he’s always ready, and he takes his role seriously.

Scoring opportunities

Generally speaking, point guards are considered to be extensions of their coaches. They make play calls, direct their brothers and sisters on where to be, and can affect their teams effort on both sides of the ball. That’s not the case with every floor general but it is the case with VanVleet.

Whenever Toronto has possession and VanVleet is on the floor, the ball will almost always go through his hands, especially when you take into account that he averages 81.3 touches per game, tied for 10th in the league (min. 50 games played) with two of the best offensive creators the league has today: Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. To imply that VanVleet is going to be relied on the way those two are would be asinine. But that doesn’t mean his contributions to his team are of lesser importance than Curry’s or Lillard’s to their respective squads, either.

As far his impact on teammates, he created 17.3 points through his 6.3 assists, which was still within the top-20 NBA rankings for that category last season. It also demonstrates his ability to put his teammates in favourable positions and although he’s not going to be dishing the ball out like Steve Nash or John Stockton, he’s become the engine that propels Toronto. He’ll be the undisputed creator and based on Nurse’s faith in him, he’ll have every opportunity to hone his craft to see what works and what doesn’t. Not only will his individuality be tested, but he’ll have to mask his teammates deficiencies while highlighting their strengths.

Not only will he have to physically set this team up for success, but he’ll also have to pick them up mentally. If there’s one thing I noticed about VanVleet, it’s that no matter how underwhelming his offense can be, his defense is elite. I’ve already sang his praises, making my case for why he should’ve been the 2021 NBA Defensive Player of the Year. But as expected, the time since a guard won the award was only prolonged last season.

That’s where his off court demeanor is going to factor in. Everyone has an off night and based on the make up of this team, VanVleet will be expected to provide guidance for anyone that’s struggling. He’ll also need to direct his squad when someone has the hot hand. We saw it throughout the year when he was on the court and from the sidelines. Coaching and guiding the younger players on where to be and what to do, so it’s safe to assume that he’ll be doing much more of the same next season.

Championship DNA

Players winning championships early on in their careers can be both a blessing and a curse. The case for why it bodes well is pretty simple: tasting championship glory is kind of like getting a tattoo (and I love my tattoos). When you get one, it becomes somewhat of an addiction. You start to fantasize about the next one, and the next one, and the one after that. Now, I won’t go down in history for anything tattoo-related, but VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher will always be known as NBA champions. Nobody can take that away from them. Winning a ring that early should motivate young guys to perform better and they should want to continually improve.

On the other hand, some young players win a ring and call it a career (at least in the sense that they no longer feel challenged). It’d be easy to have that mindset because as I just mentioned, your name will be reserved in the history books until Earth is eaten up by the sun in five billion years when it turns into a red giant and every sign of life is completely burnt out. Nonetheless, you’ll always retire a champion and if we’ve learned anything about the state of star power in the league, it’s that rings matter more than any individual accolade.

VanVleet’s role during Toronto’s championship run was monumental. Throughout the first two rounds, he wasn’t able to get into the rhythm he wanted to but that’s not out of the ordinary for players during their first meaningful playoff run. To be fair, the numbers he produced during round two against the Philadelphia 76ers were probably the most abysmal VanVleet will ever post. I’m talking two points, on 12.5 percent shooting, and seven (!!!) percent from three. Once that series was over, he played some of the best basketball of his career, at a time when Toronto needed him the most, against Milwaukee and Golden State. The next year, he outdid himself by doubling his scoring output and increasing his percentages across the board. If anyone had inklings about a “fluke playoff run,” VanVleet was there to silence the doubters and did what he always does: he bet on himself. When one door closes, another one opens. That’s the story of the Raptors championship window. The only difference is that VanVleet is at the helm as that pursuit begins.

Canadian royalty (or his alternative (?) title of Vice Chairman and President of the Raptors) Masai Ujiri, is staying in Toronto and the Raptors were never taken seriously until he arrived. However, free agents are going to take Toronto seriously. So, championship aspirations are still on the horizon and say what you will, but re-signing Ujiri was priority number one for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment (not just Toronto and not just the Raptors). VanVleet, along with the rest of Canada, can rest assured that the next three years of his contract will be spent playing meaningful basketball and as he’s said many times before, he’s used to playing on winning teams. He wants to win and isn’t interested in taking part in a tanking project. It’s a safe bet that nobody in the organization would argue differently.

Double duty (almost)

Injuries and COVID protocols kept the roster skinny and those absences were extended to the coaching staff as well. On February 26, Siakam, Nurse and five other members of the coaching staff were forced to miss the game and enter the league’s health and safety mandate. VanVleet and Lowry were available and before it was confirmed that then-assistant coach Sergio Scariolo would take over the head coaching reigns on a temporary basis, murmurs about the two guards doubling as player-coaches were out there in the universe.

Before that game, there was serious consideration for whether Lowry or VanVleet would be able to contribute as player-coaches and although it never happened, Bobby Webster alluded that the CBA ultimately prevented either player from taking over the clipboard, as you can’t pay a player beyond what his contract entails.

Lowry and VanVleet coaching together would’ve been a memorable moment in a season that was completely forgettable. They may have missed out on their opportunity to guide the team from the sidelines, but leading the squad to a win over Houston on the court was just as sweet. However, the discussion about the two and their hypothetical coaching roles didn’t stop there.

When asked if he’d taken a bigger role in that game, VanVleet iterated that he actually wasn’t as vocal. “I probably talked less tonight than I usually do. Just because, like I said, the natural reaction is just for everybody to feel like they have something to say and to be a coach and make adjustments. That’s what I do. I do that everyday… so I kinda took a step back.” Part of being a leader is knowing when to take your foot off the pedal. It helps build the teams confidence when different voices chime in and are taken seriously. VanVleet knows that and it’s why he’s favoured to become Toronto’s next leader.

Defensive IQ

Okay this is the part of VanVleet’s game that really showcases his ability to take control. For a guy that’s considered small in the NBA, he dominates defenders in a league where seven-footers like Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo are perennial candidates for DPoY. He dives for loose balls, he deflects passes, and his hands are up there with the most active set in the league. The sexier stats such as blocks and steals, aren’t necessarily where VanVleet thrives but he knows where to be on that end of the floor and positions himself accordingly. As a result, he was number one in deflections (3.8) and sixth in loose balls recovered (1.1).

That’s the kind of hustle that Toronto has set as the precedent.

It’s stands to reason that VanVleet is much more valuable because of what he does on defensive and his contributions from that end are much more important than what he does when the Raptors have possession. I’ve already made the case for him to be the DPoY and I might as well begin my bid for next season right now. With increased responsibility and the weight of the organization on his shoulders, VanVleet will continue his evolution as a player and become Toronto’s undisputed floor general next season.

Conclusion

With all this taken under consideration, I feel as though VanVleet left the impression that he’s ready to accept his new role. Think about players that continually get better. That’s usually how it works in the NBA. However, the last undrafted player I can think of off the top of my head to make an impact that’s felt the way VanVleet has, is Ben Wallace. I’m not saying VanVleet’s going to be a Hall-of-Famer, but I do feel like he has another notch that he can take his game up to. His shot attempts increased when Kawhi left and with Lowry moving on to Miami, the trend is likely to continue. But his usage and energy won’t just increase on offense. He’ll need to step up on defense, coaching, and how he conducts himself off of the court. It’s officially VanVleet o’clock in Toronto.