Welcome to "Summer Workout Plan," our annual offseason series in which we dive into a specific area for improvement for certain players to take the next step in their development. Up first this offseason is Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet.
Fred VanVleet has done nothing but improve since stepping foot in the NBA.
Undrafted in 2016, VanVleet spent most of his rookie season in the then D-League with the Raptors 905. The following season, he appeared in 76 games with the Toronto Raptors and was named a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year. In the three seasons since, he's become a full-time starter and established himself as a borderline All-Star.
There are a number of ways VanVleet can take the next step in his development, but at the top of the list is adding a floater to his game.
MORE: Who should start for the Raptors in the 2021-22 season?
As much as VanVleet's growth as a shooter was on display in the 2020-21 season, he was among the least efficient scorers around the basket. According to NBA.com, he was one of 135 players to attempt at least 100 shots in the restricted area. Of those players, only one - Oklahoma City Thunder rookie Theo Maledon (44.6 percent) - converted those opportunities at a lower rate than VanVleet (50.0 percent).
Additionally, VanVleet was one of 87 players who attempted at least 100 shots in the non-restricted area part of the paint, more commonly known as floater range. Of those players, only two - Thunder forward Darius Bazley (27.1 percent) and Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony (30.8 percent) - converted them at a lower rate than he did (31.7 percent).
The problem? VanVleet found himself in an almost identical territory in each of the previous four seasons.
|Season||Restricted Area||In The Paint (Non-RA)|
|2016-17||20-45 (44.4%)||0-21 (0.0%)|
|2017-18||107-208 (51.4%)||12-49 (24.5%)|
|2018-19||87-168 (51.8%)||11-45 (24.4%)|
|2019-20||139-270 (51.5%)||15-68 (22.1%)|
|2020-21||90-180 (50.0%)||33-104 (31.7%)|
The biggest holding VanVleet back, of course, is his size. He's listed at 6-foot-1 with a reported 6-foot-2 wingspan, and he's not someone who pops athletically.
Getting downhill isn't necessarily the issue - VanVleet was among the league leaders in drives per game last season and Pascal Siakam was the only Raptor to attempt more shots than him in the paint - but he struggles to consistently finish over bigger players when he gets close to the basket.
Not only does VanVleet get his shot blocked rather frequently...
...but he made only 58.4 percent of his unblocked shot attempts around the basket last season, per PBP Stats, a number that placed him near the bottom of the league.
It doesn't help that VanVleet can force the issue at times, both in transition...
...and in the halfcourt.
There are a few other factors at play, though. Two in particular that stood out when watching all of VanVleet's shot attempts in the paint last season: Toronto's spacing wasn't always great and the ball had a way of ending up in his hands late in possessions, forcing him to create something out of nothing.
The numbers back it up. According to NBA.com, nobody on the Raptors attempted more shots very late into the shot clock (four seconds or less) than VanVleet in 2020-21. He made 34.9 percent of his 3-point attempts in those situations - an impressive rate that placed him near the top of the league - but only 33.8 percent of his 2-point attempts.
Paired with the iffy spacing in certain lineups, it put VanVleet between a rock and a hard place when teams ran him off the 3-point line as he often drove head-first into traffic.
If nothing else, developing a more reliable floater would give VanVleet another weapon he can go to on his forays to the basket. And if it becomes a part of his game that teams have to respect, it would help keep the backline of the defence more off-balance, which could open up the paint a little bit more for him.
An encouraging sign is VanVleet went to his floater more last season than he ever has before. According to NBA.com, he attempted almost as many shots from floater range (104) in 2020-21 as he did in 2018-19 and 2020-21 combined (112).
Again, it wasn't an efficient source of offence for him, but these are the types of shots he could benefit from taking more of moving forward:
It isn't quite as simple as "take more floaters" - it's a shot that requires patience, the know-how to carve out space and a soft touch, among others - but VanVleet has flashed the ability to create looks for himself from floater range. He's a shifty ball handler who plays with pace, and he's a good shooter off the dribble.
Playing next to more dynamic cutters and rollers could help VanVleet as well. Aron Baynes has never been someone who puts much pressure on teams at the rim, and both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol like to pick-and-pop more than pick-and-roll at this stage of their careers. (Chris Boucher prefers to hang on the perimeter as well, though he is a dynamic rim-runner when he wants to be).
In Khem Birch and Precious Achiuwa, the Raptors can pair VanVleet with springier bigs who teams have to account for more around the basket.
It doesn't necessarily mean VanVleet will ever reach a point where he's manipulating teams with his floater à la Trae Young and James Harden, but a little will go a long way as he looks to address the only real weakness remaining in his game.
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