However big the bag ends up being, Fred VanVleet has secured it.
After five games in the NBA’s Orlando bubble, it’s the undrafted star out of Wichita State who’s arguably looked like the best player in a Raptors uniform. VanVleet didn’t play on Monday night against the Milwaukee Bucks as Toronto looked to save some secrets for a possible Eastern Conference Final showdown, but there’s no doubting that—based on the evidence thus far—he will have to play an instrumental role in the playoffs for the defending champions to repeat.
Since the NBA’s restart, VanVleet has averaged 19.4 points, 6.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 2.3 steals while shooting 53.6 percent inside the arc, 42.4 percent from three-point range, and 86.2 percent at the free-throw line. Considering the opponents have included the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, and a Memphis Grizzlies team desperately clinging to a playoff play-in game position, it’s safe to say VanVleet is already looking his best post-season self. Still, the man himself keeps a level head and won’t get caught up in the early noise he’s made.
“There'll be some good ones, there'll be some not so good ones and you've just got to stay level and not get too high or get too low,” VanVleet said. “Just try to be aggressive, pick my spots, still trying to find my rhythm in terms of when I'm attacking. We've got a lot, we've got a lot, man, on that side of the floor, so it's a tough job keeping everybody happy sometimes. There's always going to be an odd man out, so it's a balance.
“I think the last two games, I had a double-double the first game, I wasn't the most aggressive, but just as long as we're winning, as long as we're winning, I don't care about anything else. The rest of that stuff will fall where it may.”
It’s no secret at this point that VanVleet is a free agent come October (yes, it does feel extremely weird to not say July), and the case he has made for himself is tremendous. He will undoubtedly be the best free agent point guard on the market, and considering his age and chemistry with All-Star Pascal Siakam, should be Toronto’s top priority over either Marc Gasol or Serge Ibaka. That’s saying a great deal considering just how important those two, particularly the former, have been to reshaping the Raptors’ playoff narrative.
Head coach Nick Nurse has spoken glowingly of the way VanVleet used the post-championship offseason to become a better player, that when the team got word that Kawhi Leonard was leaving, VanVleet was one of the first to let him know he was going to be ready to take some of those shots that would become available. With the near four months that players had to themselves, it’s evident the 26-year-old has taken yet another step in his development. Despite a small sample size, it appears his scoring has diversified and his finishing at the rim has improved. Some of that is knowing the reps are coming, which he credits to a healthy Marc Gasol.
“He’s just another point guard out there and he doesn't need the ball and he doesn't shoot a whole lot and I think it’s just giving me a lot of opportunity to grow,” VanVleet said. “It’s given me a lot of easy baskets, layups. He's one of the best screeners in the league; I get to pick his brain a lot, we communicate a lot, talk about basketball on the court, off the court, and he's done it at a high level for a long time…
“He's probably on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of not wanting to shoot a whole lot so I know that he's helped me out. I probably would, you know, average about five or six points less if he was jacking them up so I got to thank him for that.”
How much those extra points mean in terms of dollars we still don’t know. The salary cap has decreased only twice in league history, but never has it had to deal with the consequences of a global pandemic. No fans in attendance for the games in the bubble is one thing, but there is expectation at the minute that there will be any fan involvement next year either. Part of why players have taken a lower salary the remainder of the season is to reduce the hit they’ll take in the future, and so while VanVleet was easily looking at an annual salary in the neighbourhood of around $20 million, with the NBA’s pre-coronavirus estimation of a salary cap at $115,000,000, that number is very likely going down. The New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets, and Atlanta Hawks will certainly give VanVleet something to think about and put pressure on the Raptors to pay up, but then there’s the 2021 free agency question as well.
Toronto appears to have their contracts in line to sign a superstar after the 2020-21 season, and so if VanVleet’s demands exceed a certain percentage of the cap that other teams are willing to meet, it could make for a very interesting cap management exercise for general manager Bobby Webster and president Masai Ujiri.
But that’s the right VanVleet has earned with his play: to demand what’s not only fair, but best for him, because he has done plenty to show any suitor he’s worth the price of admission. From betting on himself when no one else would, VanVleet has flipped the script to ensure there’ll be plenty willing to put their money where their mouth is at the end of this season.