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All bets are on: Why Fred VanVleet is due for his biggest season yet

Photo Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Gearing up for the 2021-2022 season, the Toronto Raptors will be betting on the development of their promising young core, while the team’s new de facto leader, Fred VanVleet, will continue betting on himself.

With Raptors’ legend Kyle Lowry moving on to Miami this off-season via sign-and-trade, VanVleet is expected to take on the lead guard role, running the offence, while also attempting to fill the leadership role left by Lowry. Heading into his sixth year in the NBA, the 27 year-old appears to be ready for the challenge, after growing from an undrafted prospect to a borderline All-Star under Lowry’s tutelage.

Bets paying off

It’s safe to say Fred VanVleet is now well-known name around the NBA, signing the richest contract for an undrafted player in NBA history and breaking the league record for most points scored in a game by an undrafted player this past season.

Fred recorded his best scoring season to date, averaging 19.6 points-per-game. His shooting numbers, however, took a hit, converting 38.9 per cent of his field-goal attempts and 36.6 per cent from three, while also increasing his shot attempts.

He also solidified his reputation as a pesky on-ball defender, frustrating opposing guards on the perimeter and stuffing big men before they can take the ball to the hoop. VanVleet led the Raptors with 1.7 steals-per-game, and was third on the team in blocks-per-game with 0.7. He also posted a team-best 3.8 deflections-per-game, and was second on the team in defensive loose balls recovered.

(Read our review of FVV’s 2021 season here)

Ready for stardom?

Freddie’s progression has been nothing but linear since coming into the league, improving every year and adding more to his game with each passing off-season.

While his biggest weakness might be his size – or lack thereof – the native of Rockford, Illinois, has just about all the tools be a star for a long time. Considered one of the biggest All-Star Game snubs in 2021, VanVleet will surely look to add that honour to his list of accomplishments in the upcoming season.

With Lowry’s departure, Pascal Siakam’s shoulder surgery and Toronto’s decision to draft Scottie Barnes over a shot-creator, the table is set for VanVleet to take the reigns as the team’s primary scorer to kick off the new season. He’ll be well aware of the opportunity, and most Raptors fans expect him to step up to the challenge and have his best year yet.

Raptors Insider stat prediction

PPGRPGAPGSPGBPGFG%3PT%
22.54.08.52.01.041.5%37.5%

While he was relatively inefficient as a shooter last season, his accuracy should adjust as he gets accustomed to his role as a primary shot-creator for Toronto. He has shown in the past that he can improve his efficiency when trusted with more shot attempts, posting some of his strongest shooting numbers in his first season as a bonafide starter in 2019-2020.

As the primary ball-handler, I expect VanVleet to post a career-high in assists-per-game, as his playmaking skills will be put to the test. Fred’s 26.4 per cent assist-percentage was second on the team behind Lowry, so it’s safe to expect his assist numbers to go up with the latter’s departure.

Challenges/Areas to improve

Improve as a pull-up shooter

VanVleet’s offensive game relies heavily on his three-point shot, which he has depended on more and more since he entered the league. In 2020-2021, the average distance of his field-goal attempts was 18.2 feet from the basket. While we might not see a significant increase to that number this coming season, it’s clear that Fred prefers to operate far from the basket.

VanVleet is more efficient as a spot-up shooter, sinking 38.1 per cent of his 4.9 attempts-per-game. On the other hand, he shot 35.3 per cent from pull-up attempts, averaging 4.1 attempts-per-game. Out of the 14 NBA players who averaged at least four pull-up three-point attempts per game last season, Fred VanVleet had only the 10th-best percentage. The top of the list boasts the likes of Stephen Curry, Jamal Murray and Damian Lillard; All-NBA level players who have led the league’s three-point revolution.

In today’s NBA, the pull-up three can be both a blessing and a curse. Master it, and you have quick and easy buckets at any point in the game. When used inefficiently, it can kill the flow and feel of an offence in an instant. If Toronto’s primary ball-handler is going to rely on this kind of shot, he’ll have to increase his accuracy and turn it into a real weapon.

Improve as a scorer in the paint

At 6-foot-1, VanVleet is not expected to be a go-to scorer in the paint, driving to the hoop and bouncing off bigger bodies. Posting a 38.8 per cent efficiency on drives is not bad for a guy his size, but it can definitely be improved if Fred wants to expand his offensive range. Out of the 40 guards under 6-foot-4 that averaged at least three drives per game last season, VanVleet was only 38th in field-goal percentage. He averaged a respectable 4.5 points-per-game on drives, but it pales in comparison to the double-figure averages seen with De’Aaron Fox, Bradley Beal and Trae Young.

While VanVleet is nowhere near as athletic as some of the guards on this list, one way he can improve his scoring on drives is by getting to the free-throw line more often. As we’ve seen night-in, night-out, aggressive guards are often rewarded by referees, going to the line over and over again and making their opponents pay for fouling them – controversially or not. If Fred VanVleet targets the paint with more frequency and veracity, it should result in more trips to the charity stripe, where he converts at a reliable 85.5 per cent clip for his career.

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