The context: Fred VanVleet is back as he never left.
Despite the long hiatus, VanVleet has taken over when the season resumes at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. In Toronto’s opener against the Los Angeles Lakers, he took a back spot against Kyle Lowry, but still finished with 13 points and 11 assists, giving him his seventh double-double of the season. Two days later, VanVleet exploded for a career best 36 points on a 7-for-12 3-point shot against the Heat.
His defense was just as impressive as the numbers VanVleet displayed in attack in those games. He made up a few big saves against Miami – it was his deviation from the Heat’s final possession that secured the Raptors victory – and he was his usual disruptor in Toronto’s win over Los Angeles.
There was one game in particular in that Lakers game that caught my attention for reasons which we will discuss. First, take a closer look at what happened.
The game: VanVleet forces Kyle Kuzma into a pull-up deep in the midrange.
Breakdown: The five Raptors on the field are Lowry, VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol. Lowry keeps Kuzma and VanVleet keeps Danny Green, leaving Anunoby on LeBron James, Siakam on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Gasol on Dwight Howard.
Kuzma moves from corner to elbow to set a screen on VanVleet. Rather than trying to fight across the screen, VanVleet willingly passes over to Kuzma while Lowry passes over to Green.
VanVleet keeps an eye on her man and the ball to prevent Kuzma from slipping her backdoor.
Since Kuzma is seven inches and 24 pounds on VanVleet, the Lakers are looking to exploit the mismatch by giving him the ball into the post.
Green moves to the other side of the field to push Lowry away and give Kuzma the space he needs to attack VanVleet with his back to the basket. Kuzma doesn’t post much, but he’s been decent on those games this season, scoring at a rate of 0.94 points per possession to place in the 59th percentile.
Before Kuzma can even think of making a move, VanVleet pushes the ball away.
Rather than staying behind, VanVleet chases Kuzma to pressure him near the half-court line. This makes it possible to shave an additional second or two on the shot clock. The Lakers enter the heroic ball phase of possession.
With time passing, Kuzma begins to walk towards the basket. VanVleet overshadows him towards the sideline.
With Gasol parked under the basket, Kuzma dribbles in the corner and gets up for a mid-range jumper who does not approach the entrance.
VanVleet makes an already difficult shot more difficult by reaching out with his left arm, forcing Kuzma to adjust his rally.
Why is this important: “Welcome to Kyle Lowry University, where no matter your size, we’ll teach you how to defend all five positions! ”
OK, maybe not all five, but at least three, plus a few forwards and centers of power.
Here we have VanVleet, a point guard generously scoring at 6-1, passing over Kuzma, a 6-foot-8 forward, not because he has to but because he can. Kuzma isn’t a superstar or anything, but he has a significant size advantage over VanVleet and he’s a talented goalscorer. All things considered, he should have been able to get a better shot against him than a contested midrange pull-up that draws the panel as much as the rim.
This shows several things. First, why VanVleet is a devious candidate for defense this season.
I wrote not long ago about the effectiveness of off-ball defender VanVleet this season. (Not only does he rank third in interceptions per game, but he leads the league in deflections per game). His defense on the ball didn’t get as much attention, but it should. His speed allows him to keep the most mobile point guards and he’s both strong and smart enough to keep the bigger players on the switches. He also has a great instinct, shown here by him pushing the ball flawlessly and knowing when to put pressure on Kuzma and when to back down. There are very few players you need to worry about protecting VanVleet.
That brings me to the second point, which is that it shows how Toronto managed to build a top-five defense despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and leaving two point guards leaving the backcourt.
That shouldn’t work in today’s NBA which is obsessed with heavy rosters, but you’d be hard pressed to find another team with two guards as disjointed as VanVleet and Lowry. Based on data gathered by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Patrick Miller of The BBall Index, the only “point guards” who have been more versatile in defense than Lowry this season are Ben Simmons, Luka Doncic and Russell Westbrook. (By the way, the reason point guards are in quotes is that you can tell that Simmons, Doncic, and Westbrook aren’t really point guards. If that’s an argument you want to make, so I guess you can tell Lowry has been the most versatile defenseman at point guard this season).
VanVleet isn’t as versatile as Lowry, but again, he’s capable and comfortable keeping bigger players. Is this someone the Raptors want to keep someone like Kuzma for an entire game? Maybe not. But in a pinch, he can defend himself against just about anyone.
Result: Toronto doesn’t have a single defensive weakness in its starting lineup. Teams should be able to exploit Lowry and VanVleet due to their size, but they can’t because they both play much larger than their size. Pair them with Anunoby and Siakam, both of the best wing defenders in the league, as well as a genius anchor in Gasol, who always seems to be in the right place at the right time, and it’s almost impossible to do so. play one. of them off the field. Either Lowry and VanVleet use their speed to put pressure on the ball, or they fly to help defenders, offering deflections, steals and charges.
Sacramento Kings goalie Kent Bazemore had this to say about Lowry during the Lakers game, but it could just as easily apply to VanVleet:
It’s boring af 🤣🤣🤣. #TeamEducationReform https://t.co/hoViliWMUq
– Baze (@ 24Bazemore) August 2, 2020
Annoying isn’t typically used as a term of affection, but it might be the most apt description of VanVleet’s play, especially when it comes to his defense. Because as soon as someone thinks they have an advantage over them, they have a way to get under their skin and make them do things they don’t want to do.
The opinions on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.