Toronto Raptors Player Spotlight: Fred VanVleet, Defensive Tone-Setter

Photo credit: John E. Sokolowski, USA Today (2019)

Fresh off his record-setting 54 point spectacle against the Orlando Magic on Tuesday night, Fred VanVleet wasn’t the least bit interested in talking about anything he did on the offensive side of the ball.

Even as his teammates mauled him in celebration. Even as his former teammate DeMar DeRozan congratulated him for breaking his old record. Even as the rest of NBA Twitter exploded at what he had just accomplished.

Fred VanVleet wanted to let the world know what his important contributions were that night: paving the way for his team with his defensive effort.

He is more concerned with his overall contributions to team victories than he is his own personal accolades. This is Fred VanVleet in a nutshell. This is who he has become in the wake of the new, post-championship era Toronto Raptors. This is the mature leader, the tone-setter, and the cornerstone piece of the franchise’s future that VanVleet has developed into.

While the hot topic for the past few days has been his offensive outburst, it’s the other side of the ball that warrants more attention. He is leading by example with his consistent defensive play, and with questions of Kyle Lowry’s free agency looming, Fred is certainly showing he is capable of taking the reins from his NBA big brother and mentor.

To this point, VanVleet’s journey is well-documented. An undersized, undrafted senior out of Wichita State in the 2016 class, VanVleet was brought onto the Raptors’ Summer League team. He then earned himself a preseason tryout with the Raptors and worked his way to claim the 15th and final spot on their roster. He now has a championship ring and a four-year, 85-million dollar contract to show for his hard work.

For someone who was never supposed to be here in the first place, Fred VanVleet keeps proving his doubters wrong. In his fifth season in the league, he has taken his game to another level, and one that should garner him serious attention for several accolades: his first All-Star appearance, Most Improved Player, All-Defence, and perhaps even an All-NBA team.

VanVleet has been that good. He’s continuously improved his game and taken his defensive play that was already renowned as stingy and elevated it to new heights. Any doubters that still existed prior to the season have been quelled.

For players listed at six-foot-four or shorter (VanVleet’s official NBA measurements clock in at six-foot-one in shoes), VanVleet ranks second in steals per game at 1.8 (behind the Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday), and fifth in blocks per game at 0.7 (behind Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving, Houston’s John Wall, the LA Clippers’ Patrick Beverley, and Memphis’ De’Anthony Melton).

His advanced stats are off the charts as well. Fred VanVleet’s on-off court rating this season is plus-11.4 points per 100 possessions, indicating that the Raptors are a significantly better team when he is playing versus when he is not. He is tied for second in the NBA in deflections per game at 4.0 and fourth in the NBA in recovering loose balls.

It is this hustle and tenacity that VanVleet plays with that makes him such a great leader by example, particularly for the young players. Nick Nurse wants every player to play that hard on every possession and VanVleet’s demeanour has certainly rubbed off on his teammates; it’s the very same reason players such as DeAndre’ Bembry, Yuta Watanabe, Chris Boucher, and Paul Watson Jr. have continued to see more consistent minutes.

Here is a great example of what makes VanVleet such a great defender, as seen against the Milwaukee Bucks on January 27th, a night in which he had four steals and three blocks:

Despite being much smaller than many opposing players on the floor, what makes VanVleet such a uniquely terrific defender is the fact that he uses his size to his advantage. He gets into the defender to create that added pressure when dribbling. Even if a player has the height advantage over him, he channels his defensive focus to follow the ball, rather than the move the player is making. The result is lots of on-ball pressure, resulting in players losing their handle, and VanVleet hustles to ensure the Raptors complete the defensive possession and recover the ball.

To VanVleet’s credit, he plays to his strengths. He knows he isn’t the most athletic or physically gifted player on the court. He most often makes up for these shortcomings by being the smartest and most hardworking player out there. He is willing to do the dirty work to make offensive players uncomfortable around him, and more importantly, he takes pride in being a good defender.

The fact that Fred has evolved to this point can also serve as a testament to two things: Kyle Lowry’s leadership and his willingness to take VanVleet under his wing; and the Raptors’ organizational development. What we are witnessing is a true passing of the torch; Lowry is turning 35 years old next month, and as much as one wishes he will last forever, unfortunately there may come a day when he is no longer an elite player.

The Raptors have done everything they can to ensure the franchise will remain in good hands, even if Lowry chooses to leave.

There is no telling what the future holds, but so long as VanVleet is around, it’s sure to be bright.

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