THE BENCH BOSS
BY MICHAEL GRANGE IN TORONTO
Fred VanVleet isn't the most athletic Toronto Raptors player. Definitely not the tallest. Or the fastest. But he might be the smartest, the most tenacious and the one who knows that no matter how bad things get on the court, life could be much, much worse.
The cafeteria at the BioSteel Centre is one of the nicer places to eat in Toronto. Located on the second floor of the Raptors practice facility, it features floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of Lake Ontario and offers everything from grab-n-go smoothies to meals made to order from the highest quality ingredients — it’s like a Whole Foods with chefs. There are big-screen TVs, couches for lounging, an up-to-date collection of magazines, video-game consoles and a couple of Pop-a-Shot stations. It is an inviting place to hang out. And with all the Raptors players and staff coming and going, it’s also a handy place to get a feel for what’s going on at any point during a long NBA campaign: Who’s up, who’s down — that kind of thing.
Earlier this season, Dan Tolzman, the Raptors assistant general manager and director of player personnel, was having lunch in that cafeteria with second-year point guard Fred VanVleet when he noticed something: The imperturbable 24-year-old was showing no signs of stress in any shape or form — same as always, in other words. Tolzman, who scouted VanVleet extensively at Wichita State and pushed hard for the Raptors to sign him as an undrafted free agent in the summer of 2016, took note because at the time VanVleet was mired in a deep shooting funk — the kind that can often upend a young player, particularly early in a season.
VanVleet started the year shooting 30.8 percent in his first 12 games and made just three of his first 18 three-point attempts. Worse, he was struggling to make layups. The sight of VanVleet hurling himself through the paint, followed by a hard landing and the ball rolling off the rim or getting swatted away was becoming all too familiar, but he seemed unbothered. “You’d never know he was in a big slump,” says Tolzman, admiringly. “He was the exact same guy. Who knows what was going on in head? He’s probably thinking it over and getting up 500 extra shots to get out of it, but he doesn’t let anybody know it and he doesn’t let it impact the way he approaches the game. That’s a huge attribute.”
It’s one VanVleet takes pride in, understanding that it’s a big reason why he keeps marching forward when a lot of more-obviously talented players fall back. “You take a high-energy guy [at a time when] he’s not making shots and he’s getting beat on defence and stuff,” VanVleet says. “Without the IQ, that mental strength, that emotional stability, he’s going to get down on himself. And then he’s not even bringing his energy, that one thing that makes him good, and he keeps dropping and dropping.
“Just look at him! He’s not that tall, he’s not that athletic, but he still gets the job done.”
VanVleet keeps rising. He didn’t get down on himself or at the very least didn’t let his doubts distract him. Not surprisingly, his slump was short-lived. The kid who couldn’t shoot straight to start the season has hit 41.7 per cent of his threes over the next 51 games – best on the Raptors and 20th league-wide. During the same stretch, VanVleet has averaged 9.3 points and 3.4 assists against just one turnover in 21 minutes a game. No other guard coming off the bench in the NBA can match his productivity per minute.
After being signed as the team’s fourth point guard behind Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright, it took VanVleet just over a full season to morph from afterthought to essential piece of the Raptors devastating second unit, and establish himself as a crunch-time regular alongside the Raptors starters. “I’m not the most amazing athlete — I understand that,” he says. “But my character, my IQ, the way I think the game — [those] are my things.”
Even while still with Raptors 905, VanVleet had the ear of Kalamian and the big club's coaching staff.
For the Raptors scouting department, VanVleet is a triumph. Finding future NBA stars isn’t all that hard; they are nearly all prodigies, advertised well before they arrive in the league by rare blends of size, skill and athleticism that are harder to miss than to identify. VanVleet represents the other end of the spectrum — he’s barely six-feet tall, has just an average wing span for that below-average height and, while quick, would not qualify as explosive by NBA standards. All of which explains why 30 teams passed on drafting him — twice. But the Raptors, lacking a 2016 second-round pick, believed someone with VanVleet’s intangibles might be able find a way to prove effective at the next level. They signed him as a free agent, benefitting from the early legwork Tolzman had done and the team’s relationship with VanVleet’s management team, which also represents Lowry.
But even though the Raptors saw something in VanVleet, it’s still telling that the rest of the NBA didn’t or couldn’t see the qualities that have made him successful. Quantifying will, mental toughness, emotional IQ and perseverance remains an inexact science. “Every time I saw him, I came away thinking, ‘Man, I wonder if he’s good enough to play,’” says Tolzman. But I just love him. I love everything about how he approaches the game, he’s a good shooter and just tough.”
Lowry, an undersized guard who was the 24th player taken in 2006 but ranks third in his draft class in WinShares, believes teams make it too complicated. “Just look at him! He’s not that tall, he’s not that athletic, but he still gets the job done,” says Lowry of VanVleet, whom he took under his wing as a rookie. “Look what he did in college,” the veteran continues, referencing the fact VanVleet was two-time conference player of the year at Wichita State, where the Shockers went 91-15 with him as a starter. “That takes skill, that takes knowledge, that takes smarts. And then he got here and you could tell he was a guy who watches basketball, knows basketball and knows his job. He’s smart as shit.”