As Fred VanVleet stepped forward to accept his NBA Championship ring on opening night, chants of “Freddy” echoed loudly throughout Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena.
It was the first of a few times that night that the fans bellowed out his name in praise. In a building where Raptors fans regularly serenaded Kawhi Leonard with ‘MVP’ chants last season, the vigorous “Freddy” cheers helped to fill a void.
In the early days of a new NBA season without Leonard and Danny Green on the roster, it is unmistakable to see that VanVleet’s role with the Raptors has grown. Despite going undrafted, the 6-foot-1 point guard from little-known Rockford, Ill., has capitalized on his opportunities since he landed in Toronto in 2016. Now in his fourth season, VanVleet is proving himself a leader, a mentor and a player too valuable to leave on the bench when the ball tips each night.
The Raptors have a five-time all-star in starting point guard Kyle Lowry. It’s not conventional to start two point guards, but VanVleet has made it impossible for the Raptors not to start him.
VanVleet made that clear when he started and played more than 44 minutes in Toronto’s overtime win on opening night. He did it despite rolling an ankle in the third quarter and making a brief trip to the locker room to get it treated.
His final stat-line read like that of an NBA all-star: 34 points on 12-of-18 shooting, including 5-of-7 from beyond the arc. He added seven assists, five rebounds and two steals. His most significant statistic perhaps was a plus-minus of 18, the best of any player in that game.
VanVleet said he finds it easier to start a game than to enter later off the bench, which he did during his first three seasons as a Raptor. He started 28 games last season when the Raps needed him to fill a spot, so it’s not as though he’s unfamiliar with it.
He has been known to set the tone whenever he enters a game. VanVleet likes to be on the floor right off the tip when the two teams are feeling one another out. He said his approach is the same either way: be aggressive, run the team, play defence and, whenever shots fall, well, that’s a bonus.
“If I start or I don’t start, as long as I get some good minutes, I’ll be all right,” VanVleet said on Thursday before the team left for a two-game trip. “I know it’s going to be hard to keep me off the floor, whether I start or don’t start. It’s my job to figure it out and make sure [coach Nick Nurse] doesn’t feel the need to sub. As long as I keep doing what I’m doing, keep proving that I belong out there, I think I’ll have a good chance to be out there.”
Is it complicated for VanVleet and Lowry to balance who is handling the ball and running the floor at which moments?
“We really don’t even have to talk about it, it’s just a feel,” VanVleet said. “I’ve got a great feel for him and where he’s at in the game and how the flow is going and if he’s doing better with the ball in his hands and if he needs some spot-up shots, if he’s tired. We just sort of read each other’s minds in that sense.”
VanVleet is picking up where he left off last June, when his 22 points off the bench in Game 6 of the NBA Finals helped propel the Raps to the championship. The 25-year-old still bears a scar under his right eye from that series. A crushing elbow to the face in Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors resulted in seven stitches to his upper cheek and several dental visits to fix his broken front teeth. He played through the pain.
His turnaround narrative in the playoffs added allure to his already stirring backstory. VanVleet had been average in the opening-round series against the Orlando Magic, and a definitive slump in the next round against the Philadelphia 76ers. He began slowly in the conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks, and then amped up his play, punctuated by a parade of seven three-pointers he hit in Game 5. His minutes and his production went up from there.
Images of VanVleet, celebrating with that battered, bandaged face, were right on theme with the Bet on Yourself brand he had created and fashioned into a clothing line. After completing the journey from undrafted player to NBA champ, his story became all the more fitting to tell this summer. The entrepreneurial basketball player and his FVV Shop starred in a commercial for American Express. Roots unveiled him as the spokesman for its line of Tuff Boots.
VanVleet has always spoken his mind. After he injured one of his ankles tripping over a cameraman on the baseline in Tuesday’s game, he wasn’t shy to call publicly for the NBA to re-examine its protection of players under the basket.
VanVleet has been a mentor to the undrafted rookie on this year’s Raptors roster, Terence Davis. The two have dined together and shared stories. VanVleet laughed and joked with Davis a little to keep things light after the rookie launched an air ball in his debut.
“You know, being that he’s in his fourth year and he’s an NBA champion and just worked his way to where he’s at, it just motivates me,” Davis said.
Whether the Raptors will continue to use VanVleet as a regular starter remains to be seen. With two guards under 6-foot-1 on the floor together, some opposing teams will try to overpower them with size.
“Those guys are little but they both play about 6-5,” Nurse said. “So I don’t know if there’s any matchups that would cause us to make a move or anything. But who knows?”
Nurse said VanVleet has adjusted his game in a few ways to handle competing against bigger players, such as extending his shooting range by about eight feet so he doesn’t need to get so close to the basket if someone is defending him. He also says VanVleet and Lowry show the ability to move bigger players back from the hoop and prevent them from grabbing rebounds.
“Those guys are tough,” Nurse said.
VanVleet encourages the doubters to watch him against post-ups, and study a little closer how he has performed down low against bigger players.
“Usually, the general belief is that we got a small guy you post them up, but I think me and Kyle are up at the top of that. Small sample size, but guarding the post, our numbers are pretty good,” VanVleet said. “So no matter who I’m guarding, I never want to get scored on. I take a lot of pride in that.”
No matter the size of the opponent, VanVleet will bet on himself.