In many ways, Fred VanVleet is the personification of the traits that have allowed the Toronto Raptors to reach new heights over the last two seasons.
Hungry. Resilient. Confident.
By now, we know the story of how being viewed as undersized and going undrafted only made VanVleet hungrier, contributing to his never-quit attitude and unwavering self-confidence. Three words from draft night in 2016 sum it up perfectly:
Bet on yourself- Fred VanVleet (@FredVanVleet) June 24, 2016
With his confidence reaching a new peak thanks to his performance in the 2019 NBA Finals, VanVleet entered a new season with a new-look Raptors team in a new role. No longer the backup point guard or injury replacement, VanVleet took the floor on opening night as the Raptors starting shooting guard.
MORE: The vote that catapulted VanVleet towards stardom
He would hit the ground running, opening the season with the best scoring performance of his career at the time - 34 points on 12-for-18 shooting in an overtime thriller. VanVleet's opening night performance wouldn't be a one-off, either, but rather a sign of things to come.
By the ninth game of the season, his role would evolve even more, as an injury to Kyle Lowry meant VanVleet would assume more on-ball responsibilities in the starting lineup. Again, he proved to be ready for the jump, leading the Raptors to road wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland Trail Blazers on a long trip out West.
In the 16th game of the season - a statement win in a playoff rematch with the Philadelphia 76ers - Vanvleet scored 24 points on 9-for-15 shooting, his seventh game with 20 or more points up to that point in the season. To put that in perspective, VanVleet had scored 20 or more points seven times during the regular season in 177 career games prior to this season.
MORE: VanVleet's performance against SIxers makes Conference Semis feel like distant memory
More impressive than achieving that feat so early in the season was that he did so against the Sixers, a team he struggled against in the Eastern Conference Semifinals due to their insane length on the defensive end. That he was able to finish over the same type of defenders that caused him to struggle just months prior illustrates continuous growth and evolution in VanVleet's game.
Fred VanVleet (24 PTS, 3 3PT, 8 AST, 3 REB, 2 STL) put on a show to propel the @Raptors past the @sixers!#WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/JW2gmMvgOo- NBA Canada (@NBACanada) November 26, 2019
While it's easy to look at VanVleet's career-best averages of 17.6 points, 6.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game and make the assumption that it's a direct product of increased opportunity, it would be undermining his growth as a player. Not only is VanVleet producing more as a starter this season than he did last year, but he has also added more dimensions to his game, as evidenced by his early-season performance against the Sixers, as well as his growth as a pick-and-roll scorer, a fact outlined by our Scott Rafferty.
STAT JUST HAPPENED: VanVleet continues to grow as a pick-and-roll scorer
It's this same growth and impact that gave VanVleet a strong case for All-Star consideration by the midway point of the season, and the proof is in the numbers.
There's really only been one number that's worked against VanVleet: 16. That, of course, is the number of games he had missed due to various ailments prior to the season's suspension on March 11. Such has been the theme for this season's Raptors team, a group that has barely had any time at full strength this season but still finds ways to win.
They just win more with VanVleet in the lineup.
As a team, the Raptors' confidence never wavers, they just bet on themselves.
Say what you want about this increase in production coming in a contract year for VanVleet, but there's no reason to believe that he won't be able to keep this up beyond this year as his game continues to evolve. He deserves everything that's coming his way.
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