Fred VanVleet probably should not be an All-Star. This is in no way, shape, or form a piece of commentary on what he has done as a basketball player this season — in terms of numbers and impact on a good team, VanVleet is absolutely worthy of this distinction — but more a general remark on how rare it is for a guy to follow VanVleet’s path en route to becoming one of the best basketball players in the world.
Aesop wrote fables that have not been told as many times as VanVleet’s story to get to this point. A solid high school recruit who didn’t get high major offers and went to Wichita State. A productive college player who won a lot and didn’t get selected in the NBA Draft. A G League success story who slowly but surely worked his way into Toronto’s rotation. A crucial piece of a team that won an NBA championship who is now on path to become one of the greatest players in franchise history. The word “storybook” is used to describe this sort of thing because real life is normally too cruel for something like this to happen.
VanVleet’s guiding principle throughout his NBA tenure has been “bet on yourself.” After going undrafted in 2016, VanVleet sent a tweet with those three words, and so far, the bet has paid off in a big way.
Bet on yourself
— Fred VanVleet (@FredVanVleet) June 24, 2016
This year, VanVleet achieved a new milestone by becoming an All-Star for the first time in his career. Beyond the journey, it’s rather incredible that VanVleet has become the leader of this Toronto team. VanVleet is a short, stocky guard on a Raptors team that has gone all-in on having 6’5-6’9 guys with gigantic wingspans who switch like crazy and make life hell for opponents, and is the only dude on the roster who is headed to Cleveland for Sunday’s game. (It is worth mentioning that Pascal Siakam is very much worthy of All-Star consideration, too, he just would need to get there as an injury replacement.)
VanVleet, however, has made so many bets on himself that Toronto eventually realized it’s smart to bet on him. Losing Kyle Lowry, both on and off the court, could have been a gigantic step back for the franchise. A calming presence on the floor and a leader in the locker room, Lowry is the kind of player who will get a statue outside of Scotiabank Arena some day, and unlike many other soon-to-be 36-year-old point guards, he’s still the kind of guy who can be a crucial piece on a championship contender, as we’ve seen during his stint with the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat.
Toronto’s bet was that VanVleet would be able to handle taking the reins from Lowry, and that has paid off in a big, big way. The team, as of this writing, is 31-25, which is seventh in the brutally difficult East and an impressive bounce-back after last year’s 27-45 campaign. His 21.6 points, seven assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game are all career-best marks, while Cleaning the Glass’ on-off stats show that Toronto is just way better when he plays.
He’s shooting (17.3 field goal attempts and 10 three-point field goal attempts per game) and playing (38.4 minutes per game) more than ever. That MPG number is particularly impressive, as it’s the most minutes a night that any player in the NBA this year, and he’s eight minutes away from logging the most minutes he’s ever played in a season in his career. That incredible shooting volume has come as he’s posting the best effective field goal percentage mark of his career at 53.5 percent, and no one on the team save for lightly-used rookie two-way wing Justin Champagnie has done better. On defense, he hounds guys at the point of attack in a way and uses his basketball IQ and quick hands to disrupt opposing offensive action on the perimeter. Listed at 6’1 and 197 pounds — the same listed weight as Andrew Wiggins, who is decidedly not 6’1 — VanVleet is not a guy who will ever get bullied easily by bigger players, something that makes it easy to keep him on the floor despite often being the shortest guy out there.
All of this is to say that the Raptors would not be nearly as good if VanVleet did not consistently get better and better, embracing whatever role the team would ask him to fill and then doing it so well that they just had to give him a bigger one. This year, they’ve asked him to step into the role of being a star. Even if he wasn’t spending the All-Star break in Cleveland, that bet has paid off.