There is a canned answer from a player facing free agency that nearly every fan could recite by heart. The wording might change, but there are key components: I’ll let my agent handle it. I’m just focusing on the season. The money will take care of itself. On and on it goes, until terms are eventually reached.
Fred VanVleet does not provide canned answers, and he certainly did not treat his forthcoming free agency in a stereotypical way last summer. He was a safe bet to become a restricted free agent once he started contributing to the Raptors, ensuring the team would extend to him a qualifying offer. Over the course of the season, VanVleet turned his “Bet On Yourself” motto — coined by his agent as he went undrafted in 2016 — into an actual clothing line.
“I didn’t ignore it. I just embraced it,” VanVleet said on Monday. “Instead of trying to act like it wasn’t happening, I just kind of embraced it, lived in the moment and thought that every game for me was an audition.”
It paid off in the form of a two-year, $18-million deal from the Raptors this past summer, giving him a nice bit of security while also allowing VanVleet a chance to head into unrestricted free agency in 2020, at which point he will be 26 and will have perhaps established himself as a starting-quality point guard. Different approaches work for different people, though. VanVleet is not cocky, but he walks right up to that line with his abundance of self-assurance. His backcourt partner in the second unit, Delon Wright, is soft-spoken. His game, based on changing pace, taking advantage of of his length by creating unusual angles at the rim and incredible defensive versatility, might have made him a fan favourite by now if not for his demure nature.
Which is to say do not look for Wright to start his own clothing line as he heads toward free agency. The Raptors and Wright are free to negotiate a contract extension before Oct. 15, but it is more likely he will be in the same situation as VanVleet was last year, playing this season on his rookie contract as he hurtles toward a likely qualifying offer ($3.65-million, in Wright’s case) and restricted free agency.
VanVleet drew attention to it, even if it was done in a constructive manner; Wright, meanwhile, checks a lot of those standard boxes.
“Of course I think about it,” Wright said. “I’m not going to put too much thought into it. I’m just going to try to play the season as if I wasn’t a free agent, which is trying to still prove myself. I feel like that stuff will take care of itself at the end of the year.”
The situations are very different. No NBA player is paid poorly, but VanVleet made $1.8-million total over his first two years, a value he returned many times over to his team last season. He was not that far removed from having to win a training camp battle to make the team — inadvertently, Wright helped him win that battle by suffering a shoulder injury in the summer of 2016 that opened up a need at point guard for the Raptors. The contract represented gaining a solid foothold in the league for VanVleet. As a first-round pick, Wright will have made more than $7-million over his first four years in the league once this season is done. While Wright speaks of wanting to prove himself in the NBA, the onus has never been on him to do that more than VanVleet faced early in his Raptors career.
There are different ways to prove yourself.
“The good thing about it for me, and the same for Delon, too, is that it’s not based on numbers,” VanVleet said. “My numbers aren’t anything you would marvel at, other than a good 3-point percentage. You just go out there and be solid, try to make winning plays. The great thing about our organization is that they value that stuff. Obviously there are analytics and people value stats a little bit, but those guys in the front office know the game and can value and respect the little things as well.”
The rub? With Wright, the Raptors are focusing on a big thing as much as anything else.
In the playoffs last year against the Wizards, the Raptors’ propensity to turn down open shots became a theme. Wright was one of the most hesitant shooters, with Kyle Lowry once begging him to let it fly.
It was a 3-pointer from Wright that put the Raptors ahead for good in a bury-the-demons Game 1 win, and he hardly could have been more open. He had to shoot. Regardless, Wright shot 36.6 percent from deep last year, good enough to encourage his staff and teammates to fire away. His stated goal before the season was to average at least one made 3-pointer per game; he finished with 65 in 79 games, including the playoffs.
In Friday’s game against Melbourne United, Wright was rather easily the best player on the floor, with five of the Raptors’ regulars getting a night off. He controlled the game’s pace with his usual off-beat rhythm that can befuddle a defence, especially one that is seeing him for the first time. Coach Nick Nurse said his favourite thing was that Wright was actually launching some of those shots.
“For some reason,” Wright said after the game, “when I get in the game, my mindset turns to driving.”
It is not particularly complicated. Wright grew up playing point guard, and has a lot of moving parts to his jumper. He has always been told to get other people involved, and the best way for him to do that, given his size and vision, is to get into the middle of the defence and make decisions from there. It is not easy to rewire a brain, particularly if a previous mindset has led to a decent amount of success.
“I think it’s always more difficult to get a guy to pull the trigger more than to get (a high-voulme shooter) to stop pulling so much, if that makes any sense,” Nurse said. “The guys that take high volume, you can usually calm them down easier than the guys to get them going. … It’s years of playing that way, and it’s not easy. I kind of have it from personal experience. I was a low-volume shot taker (in college) and then when I went to Europe to play they asked me to shoot all the time and I was like, ‘Ah, really?’ So it takes some time. It takes some time.”
During the Raptors’ open scrimmage on Sunday, the shots were coming fast and furious. The pull-up 3 in transition — the PU3IT, for those who hang out on Twitter — used to be primarily the domain of the Steph Currys and Kyle Lowrys of the world. On Sunday, Serge Ibaka was taking them.
We will see what happens when the real games come, but the scrimmage was not merely an exercise in fan service for everyone out there.
“I got a steal in the half court and turned around and shot it and made it,” Wright said of one play early on in the afternoon. “That was a big step, I feel like. Normally I would have just picked it up and end up driving.”
Wright might not be hunting a paycheque as publicly as VanVleet did, but it will be an important contract for him. Wright was a late-bloomer, having spent two years in junior college and two years at the University of Utah before coming to the NBA, where he was under team control for another four years
He will be 27, firmly in his prime, when he hits free agency — restricted free agency at that, which generally serves to limit the value of role players. If he signs a three- or four-year deal, this will likely represent his biggest payday. Every player follows his own path.
“Teams, they know what you can do. Our bench unit, we don’t have one person who is going to score 20 points every night,” Wright said. “Different nights are going to be good for certain people. I know other teams know what I can do and my team know what I can do. The unit I’m in, we work so well because we work together, and we don’t have one guy scoring 20 every night.”
As VanVleet said, at least in his case, the Raptors seem to place value on things that are not always easy to quantify. If the Raptors’ bench keeps humming along, that bodes well for Wright.
“If he asks me about it, I’d talk to him about it. But I don’t really walk around giving people advice,” VanVleet said when asked if he has discussed free agency with Wright. “We’re all friends. We joke about it. We all know each other’s situations and contract situations. We get it. Instead of it being the elephant in the room, we just embrace it and joke about and laugh about it. If he gets thirsty in some games and starts jacking up shots, we’ll probably know why, right?”
Actually, it might not be so simple.