Raptors’ Fred VanVleet isn’t looking back when there’s still so much he wants to achieve

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QUEBEC CITY—If Fred VanVleet cared about what others think of him and what his NBA Finals excellence last June might have done for his standing among players, he might love to stop and talk about it for minutes on end.

His fourth-quarter Game 6 brilliance — three three-pointers, three clutch free throws, nary a turnover in 12 sublime minutes — was vital to the Toronto Raptors knocking off the Golden State Warriors to win the first championship in franchise history.

And if VanVleet was someone else, he might be publicly basking in that dominating performance to this day, quite happy to point out how it was the culmination of a storybook three-year ride from undrafted question mark to key member of a championship team.

Maybe he does it in private moments, maybe he has those conversations in his own mind and with the closest members of his family, but when the near past is brought up publicly, VanVleet likes to think more about what’s to come rather than what has been.

“I think the respect I’ve been getting from my peers and from opposing teams and franchises and GMs around the league over the last few years has grown, I think that people are starting to see it a little bit,” he said after the Raptors went through the second day of their training camp at Laval University on Monday. “But it’ll always be the same, I’ll never be a darling so to speak. Not sure I really want that, either.

“I like to go out there and put everything on the line every time I lace ’em up, and that’s something that gives me a competitive advantage every time.”

It is precisely that — the desire to find and exploit a competitive advantage — that has set VanVleet on course for a long and solid NBA career when some wondered whether he’d even have one.

He fought his way onto the Toronto roster in 2015 after four years at Wichita State; he got there because of his work ethic and a steadfast belief in himself. And now that he’s been on a team that reached the pinnacle of the sport, he’s not going to slow down.

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It’s not in his nature.

“I would think I’m moving up in a little in terms of (status in franchise history) and my value and what I bring to the table but that honestly started Day 1,” the 25-year-old VanVleet said. “From my first day being here — just keep climbing. I’m a very ambitious guy and work my butt off to continue to grow and get better each day.

“Hopefully there’s new levels for me to keep reaching. It’s not gonna all happen at once but I think the future is bright.”

It seems to be, and that’s creating a conundrum for Raptors general manager Bobby Webster and president Masai Ujiri. VanVleet and his backcourt counterpart, Kyle Lowry, could both be free agents next summer and, while their coupling has been excellent for the better part of two seasons, it’s unlikely the franchise will want to pay them both what they perceive as true market value and try to keep them both happy with playing time and responsibility.

But choosing between VanVleet, eight years younger, or Lowry, who was a main component in the Raptors becoming the champions they are, is going to be a tremendously difficult decision. It’s an elephant-in-the-room situation no one around the team is talking about.

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VanVleet would like to be a starter and run his own team and has shown the ability to do that. Lowry, for as long as he is a Raptor, is going to have a special place in the pecking order.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse might find a way to start both Lowry and VanVleet this year but that would weaken the backup position substantially. And even if it works for this season, it is not a long-term solution.

But VanVleet’s not having any part of the discussion.

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“I’m never going to hurt the team in terms of what I want individually,” he said. “That always comes after our team goals ,but those goals are there as well.

“I’m gonna do a good job of keeping everything in perspective and just layering it and anchoring it in order. As long as you keep the team first, everything else will work itself out.”

Doug Smith