The 2021 off-season is nearly over, with the NBA and Toronto Raptors looking to begin training camp in less than a month. It’s been eventful the past two months, as the selection of Scottie Barnes and trade Kyle Lowry transpired. Fred VanVleet has gone from a tertiary scorer to the featured point guard and ball-handler.
The 2021-22 season will depend heavily on the continued growth of the Raptors’ young and talented core group, and much will rest on the shoulders of VanVleet.
VanVleet turned his undrafted status into an NBA Championship ring in 2019 and a four-year, $85 million contract when he resigned with Toronto in November 2020. His play has been spectacular, earning himself a starting role and setting new career-best marks as a corer.
It has not hurt that ever since being elevated from the G League in 2017 to the Raptors main roster, he has benefited from understudying Lowry. Lowry provided everything the team needed when they needed it.
He was a scorer up to the 2018 season just before management sent DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. After the team acquired Kawhi Leonard, Lowry was a facilitator during the championship run in 2018-19, when he averaged 14.2 points but recorded a career-high 8.7 assists per game.
VanVleet needs to alter his game like a chameleon this season for Toronto to have on-court success. He must become the distributor this team is lacking at the moment.
The Toronto Raptors need Fred VanVleet to become an elite passer.
VanVleet has averaged 6.8 and 6.3 assists per game in the last two seasons while scoring a significant 17.6 and 19.6 points per game during that same period. However, a major concern for the Raptors was their half-court sets, especially out of the pick-and-roll.
With an ineffective Aron Baynes playing center, Raptors’ guards needed to assume more of the scoring responsibilities in the paint, and the team paid the price with low in the paint scoring totals. The Raptors were No. 27 in the NBA, scoring in that area at 43.6 points per game.
The team was also No. 18 in assists per game in 2021, because they didn’t create or finish off enough high percentage plays. If both of these statistics improve in 2021/22, the Raptors may be in line for an improvement. That improvement starts first and foremost with VanVleet assuming the Lowry role with aplomb.
Fred VanVleet is the new on-court leader of the Toronto Raptors.
We know VanVleet can score. He went 14-17 on three-pointers in the final three games of the ECF series in 2019 vs. Milwaukee, and he had a Toronto Raptors record 54-point game in a win against Orlando last season, making 11 threes in the process.
Now, with no Lowry to feed off of and the team’s top scorer in Pascal Siakam possibly missing games to start the season after shoulder surgery, VanVleet will really need to take on the leadership role he had craved since before he signed his new contract.
During his season-ending media availability, VanVleet was quoted as saying:
"“It’s been that way for a little bit now. Obviously, Kyle is the greatest Raptor of all time, but I think that shift started to happen a little bit ago. So I’m kinda already comfortable in that [leadership] role now.”"
As the team leader, it falls to VanVleet to provide the team with the scoring and passing they need. With Siakam likely unavailable to start the season, VanVleet will need to score, but he also needs to involve his teammates by passing the ball.
In the half-court off of pick-and-roll, he needs to use Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa more when they roll to the basket rather than trying to contort himself to finish tough plays. It will extend his career longevity by helping him take fewer broadsides from centers while improving his efficiency.
He needs to pick his spots, when to attack, and when to draw the defense’s attention.
He may have help in this department, with the newly acquired Goran Dragic in town and Malachi Flynn looking to take a bigger role coming off of the bench.
Toronto’s insistence on playing positionless basketball could mean assists come by a committee and not only from traditional guards. Scottie Barnes could play a role in how well the team moves the ball this season.
However, Lowry’s 7.3 assists per game and team management skills will be missed. The loss will only be mitigated if the student, VanVleet, learned what the master, Lowry, was teaching.