Pascal Siakam stepping up to fill the Kawhi Leonard void was expected for the Toronto Raptors, but Fred VanVleet looks ready to soak up a larger role as well.
When Kawhi Leonard decided to leave the defending NBA champions and return home to Los Angeles, it was only natural to expect Pascal Siakam to assume his mantle as “the guy” for the Toronto Raptors. He was the league’s reigning Most Improved Player, stepped up in key moments during their run to the franchise’s first title and had improved leaps and bounds every year he had been in the NBA.
What we might have been overlooking, however, was the impact a still-scorching Fred VanVleet could have as he prepared to soak up a larger role as well.
To be clear, Siakam is still very much “the guy” in Toronto. In the Raptors’ season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans Tuesday night, Spicy P had a sensational game, dropping 34 points, 18 rebounds, five assists and one block. He fouled out and committed four turnovers in the overtime win, but he still got to the line 11 times and looked pretty comfortable as the No. 1 option on offense.
VanVleet, however, was a thorn in the Pelicans’ side all night long too, finishing with a career-high 34 points on a blistering 12-of-18 shooting. He drilled five of his seven 3-point attempts, went 5-for-6 from the foul line and even chipped in seven assists, five boards and two steals for good measure.
The once undrafted guard from Wichita State finished plus-18 in 44 minutes, which were surpassed only by Kyle Lowry‘s 45. He drilled a key triple to tie the game with 1:19 to go in regulation on a beautiful hammer set, and then made another clutch 3-pointer in the extra period to put Toronto up by five with 1:28 remaining.
It was only one game, but FVV showed he’s capable of the regular season lifting this team will need over the course of an 82-game grind. Preserving Lowry for the playoffs will be key for a team that lost Leonard and Danny Green over the summer, and although a Lowry-VanVleet backcourt appears undersized on paper, they more than held their own against New Orleans.
To be fair, they won’t get the luxury of facing a Pelicans team that had three guards in its starting lineup between Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and J.J. Redick every night. At six feet tall, VanVleet isn’t the ideal defensive complement to the six-foot-one Lowry.
But simply chalking up their defense to their unassuming size sells VanVleet’s pesky defense short, and after competing with Norman Powell for the starting shooting guard spot throughout the preseason, it appears FVV has won the starting job. That decision from head coach Nick Nurse certainly paid off in the season opener, as VanVleet continued his red-hot shooting streak from the Raptors’ unforgettable postseason run.
Dating back to the day his son was born on May 20, Fred VanVleet has now played in 10 official NBA games — nine postseason games and Tuesday’s season opener. In that span, he’s averaged 16.6 points and 2.9 assists per game on 53.8 percent shooting from the field and 54.7 percent shooting from long range.
Expecting him to sustain that kind of production over a full season would be ludicrous, let alone presuming he can continue to produce at the level he did on Tuesday. As impressive as he was, it’d be silly to buy into one terrific season debut too much.
However, it’d be just as foolish to ignore how ready FVV looks to assume a more central role with opportunities there for the taking. He was composed in probing the defense, committing only two turnovers, and he seemed to have a better grasp on the flow of the game — something that may have carried over from the team’s championship run.
So even though Siakam is clearly the new franchise player in Toronto, the 25-year-old VanVleet shouldn’t be overlooked in an equation that will provide plenty of openings for him to increase his impact.