Just before it gets serious and in order to fill in some time, someone asked Fred VanVleet if he could remember his first playoffs.
VanVleet knows the answer you’re supposed to give here – how you were excited and a bit scared (except don’t say the word ‘scared’), but thanks to the guidance of veterans who had become friends you were able to find your rhythm and contribute.
But since VanVleet is VanVleet, he told the truth: “Not really.”
Also because he’s VanVleet, he continued on, hoping to give a more useful answer: “My first struggles came in the championship year . I definitely remember that. That’s fresh in my mind.”
It is the prerogative of veterans that they can look weird. VanVleet came into the Raptors’ pressroom on Wednesday with his head and shoulders wrapped in towels, plural. You half expected him to say, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.”
Another perk of experience – you can afford to admit when you were bad.
VanVleet was – let’s be charitable – out of sorts the last time the Raptors played the Philadelphia 76ers in the postseason.
That was the moment before the Raptors became a national obsession, back when they were still lovable losers. On that Raptors team, there had to be at least one goat in every series. It was VanVleet’s turn.
What helped you turn things around there?
“Kawhi making the shot.”
Cue general laughter.
“No, I’m being honest.”
Since soon after that point, VanVleet has become the essential Raptor. That answer is the reason why.
This season, VanVleet – all 6 foot 2 of him, undrafted out of Wichita State – made his first all-star team. Like his predecessor, Kyle Lowry, VanVleet’s stats won’t blow you away. It’s his ability to do the right thing at the right moment that sets him apart.
When Lowry left, Toronto was headed for its Ctrl-Alt-Delete moment. The two headliners, including Leonard, had left. Their heir, Pascal Siakam, was flailing. It was time for a reboot.
VanVleet wouldn’t allow that to happen. He continued to play and talk as if he was on a contender. It’s amazing where positive thinking will get you if it doesn’t sound like you read it in an Instagram story before you said it.
He’s not the best player on the team, but he is the embodiment of the club’s identity.
As much as they’d like to seem so, the Raptors are not hard-scrabble. They play in a market that forgives them all their basketball trespasses. The arena is full every night, whether they’re winning or losing. They have that fresh title and Drake sitting courtside to burnish their hipster credentials.
Playing in Detroit the past five, 10 years, in that arena, with that history, with those unmet expectations? That takes heart. By comparison, being a Raptor is easy.
But VanVleet is hard-scrabble. He took the difficult route to this point. His charismatic journey emblemizes what the team would like to believe it is made of.
That is the species of leadership VanVleet brings. Not do as I do, so much as try being as I am. He has a quality of gratefulness mixed with a determination to be better, wiser, more useful every successive year. That’s what he brings to the office.
He’s also a lot sharper than the average bear.
On Thursday, VanVleet was getting a media obligation out of the way early. Unlike some others in the league, he doesn’t seem to suffer through it. But it’s not just fun. He’s working them while they work him.
While musing in general about how the playoffs are different from the regular season, he lands lightly on the topic of officiating: “I don’t know how much I can speak on that without getting fined.”
Everyone in the room leans in a bit.
This slides lightly into a meander about Pascal Siakam.
“He’s our best player. He’s our leading scorer, and he doesn’t get a great whistle during the regular season,” VanVleet said. “It’s a great message for the other guys. If our best player’s not getting any whistles, you better not expect any either.”
In about 10 seconds of tape, VanVleet managed to do three things. He pumped Siakam’s tires; he delivered a learning lesson to the younger players; and he put a shot across the bows of the crew officiating the Raptors-Sixers series.
Because of where he said it, all those messages will be taken and amplified. Each of them is a prefab talking point. He’s given reporters and fans something to discuss.
If things go well for the team, he was right. If they go poorly, he was also right (because then it will be the ref’s fault).
It’s a simple thing, but only the smartest pros think to do it. VanVleet may be the smartest pro out there.
Since he takes the responsibility, no one else has to bother being interesting off the court. But one interesting guy usually encourages others.
Another general rule – the more fun a pro team has at the speaker’s podium, the better they are. Nobody gave more interesting press conference than the 2014-18 Golden State Warriors. That was a MasterClass every time any one of them uttered a word. The quality of play and the quality of expression about the play were of a piece.
Even for those couple of years when the Raptors weren’t so great, VanVleet continued that tradition of interesting teams being good ones.
He has matured into the oldest 28-year-old on the planet. He speaks almost entirely in aphorisms. He’s the next-door neighbour you wished you had.
Is Toronto good enough to beat Philadelphia? Who knows? Maybe.
Because of VanVleet, do they sound like they are? Definitely.
Sometimes – a lot of times – that sort of thing matters.