Lou Williams won Sixth Man of the Year for the 2017-18 NBA season, but there was a strong case to be made for Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.
Two years removed from being undrafted, VanVleet was one of the more impactful players in the NBA this season. Despite coming off the bench for only 20 minutes per game, the Raptors outscored opponents by a total of 352 points when he was on the court during the regular season. It put him behind 18 players in raw plus-minus, a list that includes the likes of James Harden, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, Russell Westbrook and Toronto's All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan - though VanVleet was the only full-time bench player to finish the season in the top-30.
Furthermore, the Raptors averaged 112.0 points per 100 possessions on offence and held opponents to 99.9 points per 100 possessions on defence when VanVleet was on the court, giving him a net rating of 12.1. The only players in the entire league to have a higher net rating were Chris Paul (12.8), Eric Gordon (13.1) and Stephen Curry (14.7).
Those numbers are a testament to how complete of a player VanVleet is. He averaged a modest 8.6 points, 3.2 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 0.9 steals per game, but he made a tremendous difference on both ends of the floor. It started on offence, with VanVleet developing into a knockdown shooter from the perimeter. According to NBA.com, he made 44.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers during the regular season, an impressive rate considering those shots represented over a third of his field goal attempts.
VanVleet's ability to play without the ball in his hands gave the Raptors the option of playing him at the end of games. It's why he logged the fourth most clutch minutes on the roster behind Lowry, DeRozan and Serge Ibaka. While VanVleet made only 33.3 percent of his shot attempts in crunch time, it didn't prevent him from making a number of big plays, his most memorable being his game-winning 3-pointer against the Pistons on March 7 that helped the Raptors become the first team in the league to secure a playoff berth.
When he wasn't shooting 3s, VanVleet was creating for himself and others off the dribble. He averaged more drives per game than Lowry in fewer minutes and passed out of those more frequently than anyone else on the team, all while turning the ball over at a low rate. Having another ball handler who could keep the offence moving took some of the playmaking burden off of Lowry and DeRozan, which was instrumental in turning the Raptors into a more complete offensive team. It also set the tone for one of the most dominant lineups in the league, as VanVleet, Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl outscored teams by 17.1 points per 100 possessions.
VanVleet made just as much of an impact on defence this season. After dealing with questions about how he'd survive in the NBA at his height, he has turned himself into a pesky defender, one capable of harassing opposing ball handlers the full length of the court. Sometimes VanVleet would be the one who would come up with the steal in those situations, leading to easy baskets for himself or others in transition.
Other times it would be his teammates that would benefit from his tenacious full-court pressure.
VanVleet boxes out players a foot taller than him to keep them off the offensive glass and dives on the floor to track down loose balls, too. Not only did that relentlessness help him collect 68 steals - the fifth most amongst bench players in the league this season - VanVleet ranked near the top of the team in deflections, loose balls recovered and charges drawn. It's those little things that limited opponents to 99.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the court as opposed to 105.5 when he was on the bench. There are still ways teams can exploit VanVleet on defence, but he's become a difference-maker on that end of the floor, not a liability.
The combination makes VanVleet an unusual Sixth Man of the Year candidate. He didn't have the counting stats of Lou Williams or Eric Gordon this season, but his two-way play off the bench made him a key contributor on the Eastern Conference's No. 1 seed. The Raptors wouldn't have been the No. 1 seed if it wasn't for their bench, either. Their second unit had a net rating of 8.3 this season, putting them at the top of the NBA in bench production. Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl all played a huge role in their success, and yet none of them brought the consistently that VanVleet did on offence and defence.
It didn't give VanVleet the resume to win Sixth Man of the Year this season, but it was enough for him to finish near the top of the ballot.