Grading Fred VanVleet’s first season without Kyle Lowry

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The mentor-student relationship between Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry is no secret. In the five seasons they played together, they formed a brotherhood by working out and playing 1v1. They won a championship together. From the very beginning, Lowry saw similarities between himself and VanVleet; broadly they are both small guards who use intelligence rather than athleticism to dominate. Lowry took VanVleet under his wing and helped him become the All-Star player he is today. 

It was fitting that when Lowry made his homecoming to Toronto, VanVleet broke Lowry’s franchise 3-point record of 238 3s made in a single season against the former record holder. VanVleet ended the season with 242 3s made. It was also the first time VanVleet and Lowry faced each other head to head in an NBA match. It was quite the matchup, as Lowry put up 16 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds, and VanVleet had 29 points, 7 assists, and three steals in a 114-109 Miami Heat win against the Toronto Raptors. It was a real “I’ve taught you everything you know, but not everything know” moment.

Coming into 2021-22, the Raptors had a different team with the additions of Precious Achiuwa, Scottie Barnes, and Dalano Banton. With Lowry gone, VanVleet fully took over the point guard position, as he was estimated to play point guard 97 percent of the time which is a huge jump from 40 percent the year prior. With the Raptors faltering in Tamp Bay, it wasn’t certain they’d bounce back without Lowry. VanVleet made sure they did.

Similar to how Lowry took VanVleet under his wing when he first entered the league, VanVleet did the same with Barnes. VanVleet called Barnes “One of the most challenging projects he’s had” and said “there’s nothing Scottie can’t do when he’s out on the court.” VanVleet did a great job mentoring Barnes, who ended up winning Rookie of the Year. 

VanVleet replaced Lowry as the team’s leader and showed incredible improvements in his game, which resulted in his being named an All-Star for the first time in his career. VanVleet’s performance before the All-Star game was some of the best basketball he has ever played. VanVleet averaged 21.6 points and 7 assists on 41.9 percent shooting and 40 percent from three. It wasn’t just 3-point accuracy — he finished with the 12th most 3-point attempts per game in NBA history. After the All-Star game, VanVleet’s performance took a major hit due to injuries. With a hurt knee, VanVleet lost much of his athletic burst, which limited him around the rim especially, allowing defense to change how they guarded him.

He had some of the highest highs of the season. In late December and early January, the Raptors went on a seven-game win streak in which VanVleet scored 30+ in five out of the seven games. It was “put the team on your back” stuff. One of the games included a 37-point triple-double against the Utah Jazz. VanVleet was especially hot on his pull-up game from midrange and three and made a couple of drives to the rim. VanVleet made history in this game, as not only was it his first triple-double in his career, but he also became the seventh player in the last 25 seasons to go on a personal 15-0 run since Kawhi Leonard in 2020. VanVleet going on a personal 15-0 run when the Raptors were down 14 is the perfect example of VanVleet taking over Lowry’s role of the heart and soul of the team. The Raptors ended up winning the game 122-108 behind VanVleet’s efforts. 

VanVleet tied for first for minutes played per game along with his teammate Pascal Siakam. VanVleet isn’t known for taking charges like Lowry; nevertheless, he is arguably as impactful on the defensive end. He does everything he can to hustle on the defensive end. While playing the most minutes in the league, VanVleet finished third in steals per game, deflections, and defensive loose balls recovered. Lowry protected the rim in the air through verticality, and VanVleet did it on the ground by stripping the ball before anyone jumped. When healthy, VanVleet was one of the premier point-of-attack defenders in the league.

In the regular season, VanVleet placed top 10 for Wins Above Replacement (WAR). His WAR went up by 2.1 compared to last season when he shared the backcourt with Lowry. WAR is a stat that tries to convert a player’s performance on the court into wins that the individual player produced compared to what an average player would have done in the same situation. VanVleet is right there with the likes of superstars such as Trae Young and Luka Doncic. VanVleet’s value went beyond points or assists. 

It is a mystery how far the Raptors could’ve gone in the playoffs had VanVleet been healthy. In his one game played against the Sixers in the regular season, VanVleet scored 32 points on 50 percent shooting and had 7 assists and 6 rebounds. He tailed off towards the end of the year, but 2021-22 showed the heights that VanVleet can reach. There were few better when he was at his best.

Without Lowry, VanVleet had a successful first season. He became an All-Star for the first time in his career and took over the Raptors as a mentor and a leader. The Raptors found their new heart. Considering everything, VanVleet’s grade for his first season without Lowry is an A-. The only reason why it’s not an A or A+ is because of the injuries that affected his play during the second half of the season and playoffs. They could have done better in 2021-22, sure. But they found Lowry’s replacement, and the importance of that lasts a whole lot longer.

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