The NBA preseason is here and with the start of the 2019-20 season just around the corner, we’re busting out the microscope and taking a closer look at the best-case and worst-case scenario for every player on the Toronto Raptors.
This Raptors team has a lot of similarities to the one that hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy this past NBA season. There’s just two rather important missing pieces: Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and starting shooting guard Danny Green.
Every returning player, as well as the new additions, are going to be held accountable to step up and keep this team competitive, but there are a few guys that are going to be called upon more than others.
One of those players is last year’s playoffs X-factor, Fred VanVleet.
“I saw Fred [VanVleet] and Pascal [Siakam] the day after [Kawhi left],” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told ESPN this offseason. “I told them, ‘There are 20-plus shots up for grabs.’ They both grabbed their right shoulders and said, ‘We’re ready.'”
VanVleet played a major role off the bench in Toronto’s championship push. This season, he’ll be asked to do even more. With this being the final season of franchise point guard Kyle Lowry‘s contract – he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer – can VanVleet prove that he has what it takes to be Toronto’s point guard of the future?
The best-case scenario is that VanVleet showcases the ability to become a consistent starting point guard in this league.
Following a season in which VanVleet was a Sixth Man of the Year finalist, Toronto re-signed the supersub to a two-year, $18 million deal.
With a free agency decision looming for Lowry and the Raptors – matched with the team’s intentions in building around 25-year-old budding star forward Siakam – it seems to be in their best interest to hand the keys of the offence to VanVleet, a 25-year-old, in-house talented guard.
VanVleet knows what’s at stake, telling NBA.com early last season that Lowry “can’t play forever” and that he’s going to “be a starter in this league very, very soon.”
VanVleet had plenty of experience in a starting role last season due to a number of injuries and the load management of the team’s star forward.
The Raptors went 23-5 in the 28 games that VanVleet was in the starting five, and his numbers improved with his increased role.
In fact, according to Basketball-Reference, three of the Raptors’ five-best two-man lineup combinations (in terms of plus/minus) included VanVleet.
It’s also encouraging for this upcoming season and beyond that the Siakam-VanVleet two-man combo cracked the top-five in their championship season. You’ll see a lot of those two working together in 2019-20 and that could be a sneak peak at what the future of the Raptors looks like.
All signs from last season point to VanVleet being able to prove and provide as a starter this season. It’s likely that Norman Powell will take over the starting shooting guard role, but VanVleet will almost certainly work his way into the starting lineup whenever someone is absent. And whether or not he’s in the starting lineup, his role within the team and minutes he plays will resemble that of a starting point guard.
VanVleet has improved every year in his three seasons in the NBA – G League championship to Sixth Man of the Year finalist to receiving a vote for Finals MVP. Next, his team needs him to show that he has what it takes to take over as the floor general of the future.
The worst-case scenario is the opposite end of the spectrum – that VanVleet fails to emerge as a potential starting point guard and shows that his ceiling is a spark off the bench.
While VanVleet had a solid season and closed the Raptors’ championship run on a strong note, we can’t just ignore the first 15 games of Toronto’s postseason.
In 20.1 minutes over that 15-game stretch, VanVleet averaged 4.0 points, 2.7 assists and 1.6 rebounds on 25.6% shooting from the field and 19.5% from 3-point land.
Yes, you read those shooting percentages correctly.
After scoring in double figures in the first game of the playoffs, he went 14-straight contests without scoring 10 or more points. He had eight games where he failed to convert a 3-point attempt and even had contests where he was 0-for-5, 0-for-7 and 1-for-11 from the field.
It looked like his magic from the regular season had run out until the birth of his child flipped his playoff campaign on its head. Over the last nine games, he averaged 14.7 points on 51.1% shooting from the field and 52.6% from long range, notching double figures in eight of their last nine contests.
That is the player the Raptors are hoping to get this upcoming season.
Should he perform closer toward the side of his first 15 playoff games, it would be time for Toronto to go back to the drawing board for a new franchise point guard. As of now, you’d have to believe that the Raptors feel VanVleet has what it takes to carry the torch from Lowry in the near-future. If he shows that his maximum value is a sixth man, Toronto would have to pursue other options in free agency or via trade.
One thing is for certain – after this season, with the role VanVleet is about to take on, the Raptors will know whether or not their current backup point guard is built for the role of a starter.
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