Toughness is a word that gets thrown around a lot in sports. And sure…basketball, unlike hockey, football, boxing, or mixed martial arts… is not a contact sport. But toughness, both physical and mental, is still an enormous part of the credit analysts and fans give to the best basketball players. Guys like Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, Patrick Beverley, or former greats like Allen Iverson, Gary Payton or MJ were constantly lauded not only for their physical abilities, but their physical and mental fortitude which allowed them to peak when everyone else was down.
But maybe our definition of toughness is just a little skewed toward skill. Those guys were more good than they were tough. At least the way I view it, toughness in basketball is the ability to overcome physical and mental stress easier than others. From a physical perspective, it’s often times the little guys (below-6-feet) that often have to show the most toughness on the floor given what they’ve had to overcome to even make it to the league. While we all knew Kyle Lowry embodied toughness since the first day he landed in Toronto, a surprising turn has been what we’ve seen from that other guy playing point guard these days. That’s right, Fred VanVleet. Or as C.J. Miles likes to aptly calls the second year pro, ”Steady Freddy”.
In what is emerging as one of the most surprising early-season stories for the Raptors, VanVleet has nestled into a pretty firm rotation spot for now. The moment Cory Joseph was traded this past July, we all knew this team was ready to pass it’s point guard duties to the young guys in Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet. But after Wright’s early-season shoulder re-injury, as sad as that was, a huge opportunity was created for FVV. And he’s been lights out since taking over as the full-time back-up point guard, averaging 9.1 points to go along with 4.7 helpers and 2.6 boards in just over 20 minutes a night. He’s been a +10 throughout that time. That’s not bad.
But what’s been more impressive above all of that has been VanVleet’s relentless spirit and toughness on the court, usually best displayed in second quarters of games alongside Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl off the bench. He’s been a major cog in the Raptors bench, which consistently and thoroughly outplay opposing teams’ benches in second quarters, either catapulting the Raptors back from slow starts or by continuing to pile it on against weaker opponents. The Raptors have had the luxury of easily the best bench in the league this season, with a net rating of +12.0. And like it or not, Fred VanVleet has been an enormous part of those lineups playing just over 16 minutes a night (21 minutes the past 7 games).
But as many fans know…what Fred has in toughness and skill, he lacks in physical stature. That means potential defensive letdowns, turnovers, or however else a lack of physical size may manifest itself in a game. But VanVleet’s toughness, basketball IQ, and ball-handling makes his mistake-free style of play a welcome part of the Raptors second unit. Averaging less than a turnover a game is pretty good for someone who’s playing more than 16 minutes and dishing out more than 4 dimes a game.
The reality is that this is the kind of play VanVleet has staunchly developed from a young age, and in college during his time at Wichita State. As an undrafted summer-league and training-camp addition to the Raptors roster in 2016, VanVleet’s style of play since he got here has always seemed to acknowledge a lower margin of error, and seek to make those plays that guys of a bigger size just may not bother to make; a certain chip on his shoulder seemed to always be present.
This style of play showed itself best in games like the comeback home win against the Bulls during the latter stage of last season. That was a game where Fred VanVleet closed the fourth quarter, and the Raptors outscored the Bulls 34-19 in the final frame to force overtime, and ultimately go on to prevail in the extra session. With only 6 points, VanVleet’s defense and subtle impact on the game still led to a team-high +16 in 20 minutes of action. Whenever Dwane Casey needs a shake-up in the rotation, or something fresh off the bench, VanVleet has been serving as sort of a mysterious decoy addition that seems to throw some teams off with his effort level, shooting stroke and defensive tenacity.
His ability to shoot the 3 (which has improved after some early season struggles to just over 36%) obviously makes him a floor-spacer, but what has really impressed me this year has been the ability to score in the paint. He’s got a certain strength about him that allows him to finish easily in the paint amongst big men (see plays at 0:08, 0:38 and 1:30 in the video below), VanVleet shot just 35% on 2’s last year, but has improved that to nearly 40% this year. That’s still not nearly good enough, but it’s trending in the right direction, and in the past 7 games, we’ve seen him shoot it at over 46% from the field.
It’s been Fred’s improved ability to finish on tough drives to the rim that has made him much more effective. We certainly saw that on Friday night at the ACC against the Pacers in the fourth quarter. VanVleet repeatedly drove hard to the rim, absorbed contact on what appeared to be blatant missed foul calls, and still finished easily despite the contact. And rather than hang his head after the missed calls, VanVleet’s kept his composure, kept on doing his thing and finished the game strong. It was tough as nails.
Perhaps VanVleet’s most revealing category of stats though are his per-100-possession numbers (he’s the per-100 God after all). He’s upped his averages in this category (which was already impressive last year) to around 18 points, 9 assists, and 5 boards. Not to mention he’s doing that with over two 3’s made and shooting those at nearly a 40% clip! No matter what your opinion might be about Fred or his limitations physically, you have to admit…that’s pretty awesome.
Dare I say, VanVleet’s numbers and playing style (low turnovers, smarts on both ends, improving shooting efficiency as well as driving ability) are usually the kind that translate well in playoff situations. But obviously, depending on matchups (such as against the Bucks last year where size became a priority), the usage of VanVleet could be little, if anything at all. But whatever the situation may be – against the 8th seed or the 1st seed, at home or away, you can bet that if his number his called, you’re going to get everything the guy’s got.