Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2021-22 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet takes the spotlight.
Context: VanVleet had his best game of the season to date in Toronto's win over the Washington Wizards, marking the team's fifth straight victory.
In 43 minutes of action, VanVleet led the way with a game-high and season-best 33 points. He was incredibly efficient, shooting 13-for-22 from the field, 3-for-6 from 3-point range and a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line.
It was an impressive performance from start to finish for VanVleet, but there was one particular part of his game that stood out against the Wizards.
You know what that means - to the film room!
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Breakdown: Pretty simple stuff, here.
VanVleet receives the ball from Gary Trent Jr. with 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock. Standing several feet behind the 3-point line, VanVleet immediately receives a screen from Precious Achiuwa to run a pick-and-roll.
VanVleet generates the bulk of his offence as the ball handler in pick-and-rolls. According to NBA.com, he generated 34.0 percent of his offence on those plays last season. That number is up to 37.4 percent through the first couple of weeks of this season, making for one of the higher rates in the league.
VanVleet has been rather efficient, ranking in the 61st percentile with 0.90 points per pick-and-roll possession.
Knowing VanVleet likes to pull-up from 3, Raul Neto fights over Achiuwa's screen while Montrezl Harrell extends himself all the way out to the 3-point line.
VanVleet continues his drive with Neto now on his hip and Harrell retreats to take away the lob to Achiuwa on the roll.
Corey Kispert and Kyle Kuzma provide some extra help by inching off of Trent Jr. and Svi Mykhailiuk on the opposite side of the court.
The Wizards have successfully prevented Options 1 (a VanVleet pull-up) and 2 (an alley-oop to Achiuwa), but VanVleet quickly throws them for a loop with a well-timed step back.
Neto is able to get a hand up, but VanVleet's step back gives him the space he needs to get his shot off.
Why it matters: I'll let VanVleet explain this one.
"A lot of defences give that shot up, so it's something that I've been working on," VanVleet responded when asked about his midrange game by TSN's Kayla Grey. "Every night, I'm just trying to take whatever the defence gives. Some nights it's setting up others, tonight it was kind of getting my own."
I touched on VanVleet's improvement as a midrange shooter following a win over the Milwaukee Bucks last season, but he's gone to another level to start this season.
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Get this: VanVleet went 21-for-73 (28.8 percent) on 2-point pull-ups in the 2019-20 season, per NBA.com. In 2020-21, he went 54-for-136 (39.7 percent) on those same shots.
A pretty impressive jump, right? Well, through nine games this season, VanVleet is up to 25-for-43 (58.1 percent) on 2-point pull-ups.
It's contributed to VanVleet scoring a total of 86 points on pull-ups (50 points from 2-point range and 36 points from 3-point range), putting him behind only Kevin Durant (109) and CJ McCollum (88) for most in the league.
VanVleet almost certainly isn't going to connect on half of his midrange pull-ups for the entire season - not even Stephen Curry can consistently do that - but the more of a threat he is to score from that distance, the more difficult he becomes to guard.
It's well known at this point that VanVleet is an excellent 3-point shooter. He came into the NBA as an efficient catch-and-shoot threat and has improved shooting off the dribble from 3-point range in the years since. As I detailed heading into this season, it's inside the 3-point line where VanVleet has had issues. In addition to not being a volume shooter from midrange, he's checked out as one of the league's least efficient scorers from floater range and around the basket.
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There's a chance VanVleet will never be a big-time finisher around the basket because of his physical limitations, but embracing the midrange is one way to make up for it.
One, because it gives VanVleet a consistent answer to teams that run him off the 3-point line and play a drop coverage, like so:
Two, because it gives VanVleet something else to go to when he finds himself on an island.
Not that VanVleet is a dominant 1-on-1 scorer, but nobody on the Raptors attempted more shots in the final seven seconds of the shot clock than him last season. He shot 38-for-117 (32.5 percent) from 3-point range and 37-for-102 (36.3 percent) from 2-point range in those situations.
Against the Wizards, VanVleet looked a lot more comfortable creating for himself inside the arc with the shot clock winding down.
...is something we saw much of from VanVleet last season.
It's still early, of course, but if VanVleet can continue to keep teams honest from midrange, it'll help take him and the Raptors to new heights.
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