Raptors Weekly: Fred VanVleet refuses to play like an undrafted player

You have to respect a self-made man like Fred VanVleet.

Nothing was promised to him. Here was this 5-foot-10 point guard that played all four years at Wichita State (where the hell is Wichita, anyway?) and went undrafted. He wasn’t quick, he wasn’t fast, he didn’t have a killer crossover, he wasn’t a lights out shooter, and if you had to pay him a compliment, you would say he was solid.

Sexy gets you drafted, solid gets you a training camp invite, if you’re lucky.

But it was no accident that VanVleet landed with the Raptors. He was on their radar all along, and even though they didn’t have a second-round pick, the Raptors were determined to land him with a partially guaranteed contract.

“He was one of my targets from the start of the draft process,” assistant general manager Dan Tolzman told my Asian father Blake Murphy in 2016. “I think he’s a complete pro. As soon as the draft was over, I got him locked in. He was kind of ‘our guy.’”

As always, the deck was stacked against him. VanVleet was taking on all the risk, and he faced an unwinnable situation where of battling for minutes against an All-NBA player in Kyle Lowry, a mint backup in Cory Joseph, and a former first-round pick in Delon Wright. But none of that fazed VanVleet, who was happy to make the most of his opportunity.

“I’m confident in myself, I’m betting on myself,” VanVleet told the handsome Plumlee brother Blake Murphy.

The decision to sign a fourth point guard left Raptors fans confused. VanVleet was solid in Summer League and distinguished himself from the other training camp invites, but why add unexciting depth at their deepest position?

This was the reception VanVleet received. It was tepid at best.

This is the reception a year later.

That’s the entire bench racing onto the floor to as the Raptors launched a furious comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night. Everyone wanted a piece of VanVleet, who had just drilled a three to extend the lead.

Despite being the smallest man on the floor, VanVleet was seemingly everywhere. He dove for loose balls, threw gorgeous hit-ahead passes for easy layups, used subtle fakes in the pick-and-rolls that led to dunks, helped all over the floor and made two crucial threes to put the game out of reach.

Undrafted players aren’t supposed to look that good. Undrafted players aren’t supposed to play the final 15 minutes and close out the win. Undrafted players aren’t supposed to play so well that the starters — who did nothing wrong — are reduced to being courtside fans.

The only thing VanVleet did like an undrafted player on Friday night was utterly exhaust himself. He played his heart out, and head coach Dwane Casey was calling timeouts to get him some rest, because he was main player who led the push. Again, that’s not supposed to happen for an undrafted player.

“It’s very difficult (to sit him),” Casey said of VanVleet following the win. “His toughness, his mental toughness, his ability to shoot the ball, diving on the floor, his defense, he brings so much to the table. He doesn’t get rattled, he is a mature (pronounced: mah-tooer, like manure) young man.”

VanVleet finished with a modest line of 12 points and three assists in 22 minutes, but he was the story of the night. He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t sexy, but every Raptors fan watching was able to see what the Raptors saw in 2016. VanVleet is a complete pro, he did his job, and he was totally exhausted.

I’m not going to lie, I had my doubts.

I didn’t know what VanVleet’s purpose was early in the season. Through his first eight games, VanVleet shot 26.5 percent from the field, scored just 3.4 points, and recorded just 1.6 assists against 0.9 turnovers. Aside from offering some ball handling and to give Lowry some rest, there didn’t seem to be any point of having him on the floor.

The cure for Steady Freddy of late, has been a steady diet of minutes.

The silver lining in the big bummer that is Delon Wright’s separated shoulder has been an expanded role for VanVleet, who immediately took the new role and ran with it. He took over for Wright in the road win at New Orleans, forcing turnovers against DeMarcus Cousins while making threes in the fourth. That set the tone of what was to come.

VanVleet has averaged 9.9 points and 4.5 assists in the 10 games since Wright went down in 21.3 minutes per game. He’s shooting 47.4 percent from the field and a blistering 44.4 percent from deep. He’s also just averaging just one turnover per game and getting it back himself with a steal every night.

“I haven’t really changed anything, just being more assertive,” VanVleet explained of his improved play. “I’m playing longer stretches, getting more rhythm, getting a better feel. I think that’s a lot of my game is feeling the game out and seeing where I can pick my spots.”

The more impressive achievement is that Casey has entrusted VanVleet to close games, and he delivers each time. VanVleet is playing a team-high 9.1 minutes in the fourth quarter this season, and his list of clutch moments might top any other player on the team.

  • Boston loss: VanVleet forced a turnover from Jayson Tatum and gave the Raptors a shot to win
  • New Orleans win: Great help defense against Cousins
  • Wizards win: VanVleet drills game-clinching three off pass from DeMar DeRozan
  • Hawks win: No clutch minutes needed, but spurred a 31–5 run in the second quarter to clinch the win
  • Hornets win: Won a late rebound against Dwight Howard, fed Serge Ibaka for a late pick-and-pop jumper
  • Pacers win: Absolutely mugged but no calls, overall solid defense against Victor Oladipo
  • Grizzlies win: Pretty much had a hand in everything

VanVleet has played so well that Raptors fans, being the tortured souls that we are, are worrying about a good thing with having too many guards. We’re now worrying about how to find minutes for Wright when he returns within a week or so. Wright was excellent, shooting 52 percent from the field and playing lockdown defense, but there’s a legitimate case to be made that those minutes should be redistributed to VanVleet.

Again, an undrafted player shouldn’t be doing any of this, but that’s the story of VanVleet.

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