How Fred VanVleet is leading the Raptors through an underdog season

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In the several years that Fred VanVleet has spent on the Toronto Raptors, his potential has been obvious.

For every skill he lacks, the six-foot point guard makes up for it tenfold in effort and a steadiness that’s been present in his game since his rookie year.

Initially, VanVleet's size made it seem that there was a cap to his potential as a floor general. His drives to the rim were met with authoritative blocks, his head-down drives and issues building a connection with the big men rolling alongside him left viewers wondering whether he was a true point guard, or simply an undersized shooting guard.

If someone had asked me who would be the Raptors’ breakout star this season just last summer, the easiest answer would’ve been OG Anunoby. And although the young small forward has made tangible strides as a varied scorer and interior passer, VanVleet has been the one who has buoyed the team through a season so far defined by injuries, absences, and schedule losses.

Fred VanVleet embraces his perennial underdog status. (Getty)
Fred VanVleet embraces his perennial underdog status. (Getty)

It may seem as though VanVleet has transformed his game for the 2021-2022 season, but it has been the very same traits that endeared him to the NBA as “Steady Freddy” that have catapulted him into All-Star candidacy today.

The first of those traits has been his ability to thrive as an underdog as a means to generate motivation and drive for himself. This chip on the shoulder is trademark for undersized guards, but since going undrafted and announcing so to a room full of friends and family, VanVleet has taken this identity up a notch by making the hesitancy of others to believe in his potential an entire brand.

Considering the fact that the Raptors have entered this season rightfully understood as underdogs in a loaded Eastern Conference, it’s no surprise that this environment has acted as a playground for a player like VanVleet — a player who does not rely on an ounce of outside validation in order to thrive.

“Imma be honest, I always think I’m the best player in the gym and sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m wrong and sometimes you show it and sometimes you don’t," said VanVleet. "That’s just the way I approach the game and you have to enforce that will and enforce your will on the game."

Although I credit much of his recent success to his approach to the game, it would be incomplete without mentioning the developed skills that have facilitated said success.

VanVleet has improved considerably within the perimeter, making approximately 67 percent of his shots within three feet of the rim — a pretty outrageous 14 percent improvement from last season in arguably what was once the biggest weakness to his play. One could chalk up his evolved finishing to better angles, touch, pacing etc, but the 27 percent improvement on long twos compared to last season’s numbers (from 39 percent to 66 percent at the distance of 16 feet to the three-point line) has had a cascading impact on the way other teams approach guarding VanVleet.

An improvement on midrange shooting that large means that players defending VanVleet can no longer hover around the rim, waiting to swat his attempts away. Particularly in the pick and roll, big men switched on to the Raptors’ lead guard must now contest his efficient midrange attempts — leaving them out of position and clearing enough space for drives and finishes. Not only does this clear the lane for VanVleet, but it also forces another defender to collapse, which has led to a noticeable uptick in nifty dump-off passes and lob throws to Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, Anunoby, and Precious Achiuwa.

It’s tough to discuss VanVleet’s game without mentioning the impact of his longtime mentor in Kyle Lowry, but besides their shared status as undersized guards, their on-court identity doesn’t go beyond two-way effort.

Not only has VanVleet kept the Raptors afloat through this new normal of uncertainty, like Lowry once did, he’s more than earned his title as the polished leader of a young team of rough diamonds.

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