With the NBA’s play-in period set to commence in a couple of days, the Toronto Raptors are counting on a man who is playing for more than just another ring.
Having overcome adversity throughout his entire life, the NBA bubble represents just another challenge for the former Wichita State Shockers point guard. Standing at just a shade over 6 feet tall, what he lacks in size for a prototypical NBA guard, he more than well makes up for in savvy, intelligence on the ball, and grit on the defensive end.
As a former Raptors 905 alum and a key piece in the team that won the NBA’s Developmental League (now known as the G-League) championship in 2017, his rise to notoriety has been nothing short of spectacular. He would go on to parlay this success into the following year, playing a key bench role in a Toronto Raptors team that glided to a franchise-best 59 wins and earning himself a Sixth Man of the Year nomination, as well as a shiny two-year extension.
His arrival onto the NBA’s mainstream, however, would come in Toronto’s historic 2019 championship-winning playoff run. Stuck in the middle of a torrent shooting slump, it would take the birth of his son, Fred Jr., for VanVleet to finally break out on the big stage.
A 21-point, 7-trey explosion in Game 5 versus the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, as well as a 22-point performance in a closeout Game 6 against the Warriors in the Finals — all the while defending two-time MVP Steph Curry — would ultimately get him recognized as one of the association’s rising stars.
Having finally secured a starting role in head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation, VanVleet has naturally put up career highs across the board before the regular season’s suspension, averaging 17.6 points, 6.6 dimes, and shooting at a respectable 39 percent clip from downtown in 48 starts. The 25-year old is also fourth in the league in steals — 1.9 per game — and has again been an instrumental piece to the Toronto Raptors’ 46 wins this year, second in the conference behind the Bucks.
Despite these statistical achievements, he has been hampered by a string of injuries — a right knee contusion in December, a hip injury the following month, and a sprained shoulder in February — which calls into question the durability of a player with a physical playstyle eerily resembling his backcourt mate in Kyle Lowry.
Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that Fred VanVleet has been having the best season of his career — albeit, it’s fair to say that it has come at just the right time.
The Contract Situation
Following his performance coming off the bench in the 2017-18 season, the Raptors signed VanVleet to a 2-year, $18 million deal, which expires following the culmination of this season. Seen as a gamble at the time, the decision has truly paid dividends, as this offseason, he is set to become an unrestricted free agent in a notoriously weak free-agent crop — thus raising his value.
For some context, Lowry was signed to a $31 million extension last summer, and it is a very real possibility that VanVleet could receive a deal around those figures, according to an unnamed team executive. While he has stated that he wants to remain with the Toronto Raptors beyond this season, it is apparent that president Masai Ujiri will be facing a struggle to retain his services.
Thus, his performances in Orlando will be instrumental in deciding VanVleet’s future. There’s only one question now, and that is which version of Fred VanVleet will we get in the playoffs? The one that struggled to make his shots versus Orlando and Philadelphia last time around? Or, on the flip side, the one that went berserk during the back-half of the series versus Milwaukee and played his heart out against Steph Curry and co. in the finals?
The man who, throughout his career, has made it known that he constantly bets on himself to succeed, will have a seat at the poker table one more time. This time, he’s placing his biggest bet yet.