Intelligent, fearless Fred VanVleet will leave his mark on the playoffs once his shoulder heals
The Raptors have a win under their belt already and still have a secret weapon to throw at the Washington Wizards.
OK, Fred VanVleet has not been a secret for a while now, but he is a weapon and he wasn’t able to be part of that Game 1 win at the Air Canada Centre this past Saturday.
He was still feeling the effects of a hit he took on his right shoulder when Miami’s Bam Adebayo nailed him with an illegal moving screen in last week’s regular-season finale.
VanVleet is back on the practice floor, after having watched Game 1 in street clothes. Sunday afternoon, Casey called him “much better,” but still day to day. He wouldn’t commit to him playing Game 2.
Saturday night, he was on the bench in a blue blazer, white T-shirt and and perched strategically on the outer edges of every huddle during the game to avoid any undo contact with his sore shoulder. Knowing what we know about VanVleet, he was taking in everything that was being said having already processed and dissected what had been going on during the actual game action.
You see, VanVleet is a student of the game of the highest regard. He’s a basketball nerd for want of a better term.
And it’s that very knowledge and thirst for all basketball knowledge that makes him the player he is. It’s what allows him to overcome the fact that he is barely six-feet tall and is still able to excel in a game meant mostly for people who haven’t seen six-feet since the sixth grade.
However, few think the game like VanVleet and few have his fearlessness. They aren’t measurable skills, and maybe that is why so many basketball people missed on him when he was available to all 30 teams in the league in the draft and no one offered.
Jerry Stackhouse knows a basketball player when he sees one and he knew early on Van Vleet was a guy who was going to help the Raptors. The head coach of the Raptors 905, Toronto’s G-League team, could be graduating to the NBA head-coaching ranks any day now, if all the rumblings about him are true. He spent time with Van Vleet in his rookie season when VanVleet came down to join the farm squad for 16 games and two more in the playoffs.
Stackhouse quickly became a fan.
“I watch Fred because of his energy,” Stackhouse said recently. “You can’t teach the energy he brings. He turns it on sometimes and picks his spots because he’s so damn smart. He waited that whole time (in Toronto’s signature win over Houston on March 9 at the ACC) against Chris Paul before he really got into him. He could have got into him much earlier but it was that one moment when we really needed something and he has a knack for that.”
VanVleet had a modest 11 points and five assists in 23 minutes in that game but Paul was extremely complimentary of him after VanVleet picked up the perennial all-star full court and forced him to turn the ball over at a key moment in the game.
Stackhouse saw a little of that himself when he was just getting to know VanVleet and what kind of player he was and could be in the future.
“I challenged him one time,” Stackhouse said. “There was this point guard from Erie that I like (Gabe York) and thought he kind of looked like Fred. I said to Fred, ‘His game is kind of like yours a bit. You have to be ready to play because he has hurt us in an earlier game (when Fred wasn’t there).’”
“Man, when I said he was somewhat like him, he didn’t say anything, but he took that as a challenge,” Stackhouse added. “He picked that boy up full court the whole game. It was like, ‘Stack, I’m about to show you we are really not that close at all.’ I didn’t tell him to pick up full court but he wore his ass out for 48 minutes. Wouldn’t even let him dribble. That’s the type of competitor he is.”
The Raptors got through Game 1 without VanVleet primarily because Delon Wright stepped up and hit some big shots as did OG Anunoby. But VanVleet’s energy, his defence, and his three-point shooting are all going to eventually leave their mark on this series.
If it’s not Game 2 it will be Game 3, but the Wizards are eventually going to have an even tougher road when VanVleet does return.