Fred VanVleet: Not Yet Elite

Fred VanVleet has the potential to become an elite offensive player in the NBA.

Fred VanVleet went from undrafted to analytical gold in only a year. We forget as a rookie he didn't have much of a role after playing under 300 minutes in just 37 games. Not much of that playing time was meaningful, and his numbers would suggest he didn't deserve a significant role yet. The real takeaway from VanVleet's rookie season was that he looked like he belonged when he was on the floor.

Currently, Fred VanVleet may not deserve the primary set of keys, but can we get him the valet key? The breakout began in year two when VanVleet saw over 1500 minutes in 76 games. He snatched the backup point guard role and forced Delon Wright to play off the ball. A lot of people probably assumed Pascal Siakam was the star of the second unit, and they weren't necessarily wrong. When Siakam elevated his game after the All-Star break last season, it made it hard to tell who was leading the bench. Prior to that, though, it was clearly VanVleet. He has surpassed any and all expectations. However, he may not even be close to surpassing Kyle Lowry.

VanVleet has the potential to become an elite offensive player in the NBA. We know Fred already has great shooting mechanics. He has improved his mid-range. In fact, he hit a pair of mid-range shots in game three he probably doesn't make a year ago. Turnovers aren't an issue with VanVleet. What might be an issue is his defense. VanVleet can range from a below average defender to a slightly above average defender depending on the day or matchup. He's gotten better on closeouts this season, but he still has room for improvements. That still shouldn't take away from Fred's accomplishments.

Last season VanVleet shot a team-high 42% from the most difficult shot in basketball, the above the break three. Finding a guy that can be reliable from the corners is no longer a difficult task, but finding a sniper is still like discovering a diamond mine. He got injured in game 82 as the Raptors attempted to win their 60th game. It's safe to say mistakes were made. Did that injury cost the Raptors Game 1 versus the Cavs? Fred missed potentially two game-winners in that game. It seems likely that he at least would have made one if he was 100%. If Fred is currently healthy will he be trusted to shoot crunch time shots?

VanVleet may have shifted from 6th to 7th man with Serge Ibaka transitioning to the bench post-Gasol trade. However, VanVleet's role has still grown after trades and injuries and shrunk back end depth. It's the playoffs now and hockey lineups are done. We are seeing a more blended second unit rather than an all-bench lineup. It's no secret the Raptors bench hasn't had the same success as last year. We talked ourselves into thinking that bench would translate their regular season success into the post-season. It's one thing for bench players to dominate opposing bench players. When those same players were asked to do for stretches against starters the results weren't nearly as favorable. The difference with Fred is that, since he's played crunch time minutes with Kyle Lowry, he is used to playing with starters and against starters.

In this Magic playoff series, he hasn't been that effective. In game one, Fred VanVleet shot like a Hall Of Famer compared to Kyle Lowry. 

Player FG 3pt FT Reb Ast TO Stl Blk PF +/- Pts
Kyle Lowry 0-7 0-6 0-2 7 8 2 2 0 3 11 0
Fred VanVleet 5-9 3-6 1-2 2 1 2 0 0 3 -16 14

Unfortunately, that doesn't tell the whole picture. Yes, Fred shot a lot better than Kyle. However, in virtually every lineup in game one the Raptors got shelled with Fred on the floor.

Game 1 Fred VanVleet lineup data (via NBA.com)

And in the two games since VanVleet has only shot 3 of 12 (0 of 4 from three). When he's not hitting shots he has to figure out other ways to help the team.

Fred VanVleet offensive strengths and weakness (via Synergy)

Season 2017-18 2018-19
Overall Half Court Good Average
P&R Ball Handler Good Average
Spot Up Excellent Very Good
Transition Very Good Very Good
Isolation Average Very Good
Hand Off Average Poor
Off Screen Average Excellent

Fred VanVleet defensive strengths and weakness (via Synergy)

Season 2017-18 2018-19
P&R Ball Handler Very Good Very Good
Spot Up Below Average Average
Isolation Average Average
Post-Up Below Average Excellent
Hand Off Good Average
Off Screen Excellent Below Average
Around Basket (no post-up) Excellent Average

It would appear VanVleet is trying to address some of the flaws in his game, but at the same time, he has regressed in some of his strengths. Finishing around the rim is probably something that will be a weakness for him (51.4% last year vs. 51.8% this year) because of his size. We saw Fred blow a pair of shots at the rim in game three. Additionally, VanVleet's size hinders him when switching onto bigger opponents. VanVleet often gets compared to Lowry. Both small guards started their careers being ball-dominant bulldogs. Unfortunately, Fred hasn't been blessed with the same girth as Kyle.

A common thought is that VanVleet dribbles the air out of the ball. It's true he isn't the elite playmaker Lowry has become. There has been this war against hero ball. It's incredibly painful when it fails. What you might not know is Fred can succeed both on and off the ball. He scores 1.21 points per possession on catch and shoots. When he gets open that number goes up to 1.379. VanVleet is an excellent shooter. Just get him good looks.

Fred VanVleet signed a two-year $18M contract with the Raptors. He's been worth the money in year one of the deal. In a vacuum, VanVleet does enough to be considered one of the better bench players in the league. For Fred to go from good to elite in the NBA, he'll need to elevate the players around him. Fred becoming a better playmaker or switchable defender could get him there. It's a tall task for the six-foot point guard, but don't bet against it.

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