The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of a close game against the Utah Jazz to start the month of February. The Jazz dunk to stretch their lead to three as the game is about to enter clutch time. How do the Raptors counter?
Fred VanVleet meanders the ball up the court and takes a screen, which the Jazz switch. Then he receives another screen, which he rejects. By this time, the Raptors are low on the shot clock. VanVleet misses a stepback in the midrange with seven seconds left, and the Raptors go on to lose by three.
Such moments can stand out strongly in the mind of a viewer. There’s a power to anecdotal memory that weights one play much more strongly than another.
But that doesn’t make anecdotal memory by definition correct. It has become popular in many corners of Raptors fandom — including this site — to suggest that VanVleet is a selfish player. But the statistics simply don’t support that. The numbers show that VanVleet — more than anything else — is simply a starting point guard in the NBA. It’s mostly a guard-dominated league on the offensive end, and starting point guards across the league have the rock in their hands for huge swathes of games. On a scale from shoot-first to pass-first, VanVleet mostly falls right in the middle. He’s kind of the same as his peers.
There are a number of statistics you can use to describe the propensity of a player to call his own number. We can start with his usage and shot frequency.
Compared to other starting point guards, VanVleet doesn’t take a lot of shots or finish a preposterous number of possessions. He’s second on the Raptors in usage and shot frequency, but that’s usually where lead guards end up; eighteen NBA teams have their starting point guard first or second in usage on the team. Most of those who aren’t are players like Monte Morris or Tre Jones. VanVleet is a higher-quality player than those in that group. He was an All Star last season, and the Raptors depend on him to create offense. His skills are missing elsewhere on the roster. (Which is why he has the third-best offensive on/offs on the team.) So his having the second-highest usage on the team is extremely normal.
VanVleet does have the ball in his hands a lot, even for a lead guard — he’s eighth in touches per game in the league. But to be eighth in touches and 41st in shots per game actually shows he’s doing more point-guard stuff with the ball in his hands. Not shooting. And when he does have the ball in his hands, he gets rid of it far, far earlier than the average starting point guards.
Let’s take a moment to focus on those statistics. VanVleet is right among the leaders for shortest touch time and fewest dribbles per touch. Yes, sometimes he runs zero-pass possessions with little pace or purpose to them. Guess what — all starting point guards do. Most do more than VanVleet. He usually does a great job getting rid of the ball and making sure he makes quick, advantageous decisions.
And when he does get rid of the ball, VanVleet is also an extraordinary off-ball player, a great cutter and screener. That’s by definition unselfish, especially for a player of his size and wish his injury history. (Seriously, a player like VanVleet, with a contract coming up who has been injured plenty over the past few seasons doesn’t need to be setting such physical screens on the court, but he does.) He remains one of the higher-volume off- and on-ball screeners in the league. He’s an exquisite passer.
One argument often lobbed against VanVleet is his inefficient shooting. He is below average among starting point guards for his true shooting percentage. Much of that was due to a 3-point slump that began last season and extended into this campaign. But he’s still not an efficient finisher at the rim, even if he has helped buoy that by drawing far more free throws this season.
Still, VanVleet is Toronto’s most significant 3-point shooter. If he isn’t shooting, the team simply loses the punch to a number of its actions. In my mind, not shooting triples would be more selfish for VanVleet than shooting them. He has the highest on/offs on the team for 3-point frequency; they just don’t take enough triples without him. He just has to make ’em. And lo and behold, his slump has started to turn around. He’s up to a passable 36 percent from deep since the start of the new year, which has jumped his true shooting percentage to a livable 55.4 percent. Not elite, not basement for starting point guards. Regardless, missing shots isn’t selfish. You can quibble with shot selection, which I have done, but he takes half his shots from 3-point range. Toronto needs shooting, so few of his triples are ill-advised. Those go in? He’s flying. Those miss and he’s in a slump. That’s life, but process — not results — must define selfishness.
I’m getting into the weeds here, but another criticism I’ve seen is the late-clock pass, also called a grenade. Of all the players leaguewide, VanVleet is 98th in percentage of his total passes that come within the final five seconds of the shot clock. That’s upper echelon, which isn’t great, but it’s far from the top in the league. He’s lower than other guards like Gabe Vincent, James Harden, Shake Milton, RJ Barrett, Delon Wright, Tyrese Maxey, and plenty of others. (Also, among Raptors, he’s below Jeff Dowtin jr., Dalano Banton, and Precious Achiuwa.) So there’s some criticism to be lobbed there, certainly. He should do more earlier in the clock. But he’s no exception from many point guards.
Perhaps the most realistic criticism of VanVleet is that his usage and shot frequency go up in clutch time, and his efficiency goes down. He has taken some ill-chosen shots this season, to be sure. His clutch-time effective field goal percentage is the lowest on the Raptors, outside of Malachi Flynn, who has taken very few clutch shots. But his expected value on clutch shots is also the lowest — he’s taking the hardest shots and converting them basically as expected. There’s deserved criticism in that he’s taking such hard shots, but it doesn’t all go to VanVleet; the team could do with creating more creative crunch-time offense. Still, VanVleet needs to improve his late-game shooting and shot selection. But those lacks don’t do nearly enough to outweigh the unselfishness of the rest of his game.
This isn’t as scientific as the rest of the article, but I would suggest there’s a pretty good reason for the volume of the VanVleet criticism this season. From 2013-14 to 2020-21, the Raptors employed one Kyle Lowry; he was Toronto’s point guard before VanVleet. Lowry is thus the point of reference, the framework by which “point guard” is understood in Toronto.
And Lowry was one of the most unselfish basketball players of his generation. His usage rate was low compared to other lead guards and his assist rate high. His average seconds and dribbles per touch were exceptionally low compared to other lead guards at the time, particularly when the Raptors were a championship team. To be fair, Lowry surpassed VanVleet’s marks this season in average touch time and dribbles per touch from 2013-14 to 2016-17, but then they dropped much lower afterwards.
And for some similarities between the two, VanVleet is not Lowry. Compared to Lowry — Toronto’s framework for understating the position — VanVleet perhaps doesn’t hold up particularly well. He’s not a top-three-or-four point guard of his decade. But compared to the entire field at his position, VanVleet does not stand out as selfish or a ball hog or any other such condemnatory label. In reality, he is just a point guard. He’s not perfect — he misses shots, he passes too often at the end of the shot clock, and he makes some poor decisions in clutch time. But if you’re criticizing players for not being generational like Lowry, then you’d have to throw out the whole baby with the bathwater.
In that sense, the Raptors had been spoiled for a long time at the point guard position. Once upon a time, the team had one of the best players of the decade running the show. The Raptors remain happy with VanVleet, but simply in a different way from how they were with Lowry. EPM by dunksandthrees ranks VanVleet as the 13th most valuable point guard in the league this season. Yes, he accomplishes his success in a different way from Lowry — in part, by holding the ball more and for longer periods. But that doesn’t make him a selfish player. It simply makes him a point guard. And in his way, a very good one.