The Toronto Raptors held media day for the 2021-22 season on Monday morning, as players took part in photoshoots and interviews ahead of the new season. Among players that spoke was 27-year-old guard Fred Vanvleet, who enters this season as his team’s undisputed leader for the first time in his five-year career.
Next man up
With Kyle Lowry, the most valuable player the Raptors have ever had, leaving to Miami in an offseason sign-and-trade, Vanvleet is next in line for the Raptors’ leadership role. Lowry took him under his wing from the moment they became teammates in 2016, and Vanvleet very quickly developed a lot of the same traits that made Lowry as valuable as he was over their five years together.
Vanvleet took the podium for just under 20 minutes, and if you could take one thing away from the interview it would be that the Raptors are in very good hands with him at the helm. The Rockford, Illinois native might just be the most well-spoken player in the NBA as he finds a way to calmly dissect his own thoughts and articulately describe them to the media with detail and honesty. His insightfulness is captivating to fans and listeners and must translate to his teammates in the locker room.
Back in Toronto
Vanvleet was quick to express his excitement in being back in Toronto, given that the team has not played a home game since February of 2020.
“I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed living here until I came back. … It’s a beautiful place to be,” he told Doug Smith of the Toronto Star. “I have an extreme connection to this city for many reasons: from my story, to winning a championship, to just being in the NBA. It’s really become my second home.”
Bigger than basketball
Vanvleet was asked about his friendship with Lowry, and how things are going to be different without him. He explained that their relationship goes much deeper than basketball.
“He’s going to continue to be a mentor in my life, and somebody that I always lean on,” he told Josh Lewenberg of TSN. “The funniest part about the whole relationship is that he probably calls me to ask for my opinion more than I call him.”
The tables have turned
After spending the last five seasons learning under his backcourt teammate, the 6’0” guard now finds himself in Lowry’s shoes, with second-year guard Malachi Flynn acting as the student.
“I got right next to Kyle to learn as much as I could,” Vanvleet told Sportsnet’s Steven Loung, speaking about his first years in the league. “And Malachi has been up under me since the day he got here. So hopefully I can share as much as I can with him to bring him up to speed. But I definitely believe in him, and I can’t wait to see the next jump that he makes.”
On the court, Vanvleet is happy with where his game is at, and heads into next season with unmatched confidence in his abilities. Despite his team’s struggles, the Wichita State product had a career-year in 2020-21, averaging 19.6 points and 6.3 assists per game. He believes he would have been an All-Star if the Raptors would have finished higher in the Eastern Conference standings and next season, he wants to improve his efficiency, expand his productivity, and take on a bigger role for his team.
“Just to keep doing more. … I think I need to be more efficient. I need to finish at the rim better. Add the in between game. … I haven’t met a perfect basketball player yet but that’s my goal. I’m chasing that down” he told Sportnet’s Danielle Michaud.
Defensively, Vanvleet sees himself among the best there is. With a 6’2” wingspan, he unexplainably led the NBA in deflections per game last season. He has tremendous instincts, quickness, and strength for his size.
“I don’t know who votes on all-defense anymore so I’m just gonna ignore that one until it comes but I know I’m one of the best defenders in the league for sure.”
Vanvleet made it clear that he does not listen to the outside noise when it comes to fan opinions or media content.
“I stopped valuing non-basketball people’s opinion a long time ago,” he told TSN’s Kayla Grey. “My list of basketball people is like: Masai [Ujiri], Bobby [Webster], Nick [Nurse], Kyle Lowry… those guys… outside of that, it doesn’t really matter. … If people want to count us out, great. That’s not a bad place to be sometimes, especially with a young group. Hopefully every team that comes in here thinks we suck, and they don’t play hard, and we win, we win a bunch of games, and we get into the playoffs. Anything can happen when we get into the playoffs.”
Lifting up his teammates
Vanvleet was also asked about his teammate and good friend Pascal Siakam. Siakam and Vanvleet both came into the NBA and joined the Raptors organization in 2016 and have been with the team ever since. They now sit as the longest-tenured current Raptors, five seasons into their respective careers. The two players have both taken expansive steps in improving their game over that time but have taken very different career paths.
Siakam, a guy that picked up the game of basketball much later than most NBA players, experienced rapid-fast development in his game after just a few seasons. However, over the last couple of years he has gone through some ups and downs on the court, as well as mentally, trying to understand his role with the team. Like a true leader, Vanvleet expressed his faith and confidence in his former All-Star teammate and is looking forward to what they will be able to accomplish on the court together next season.
“P is good. He’ll be fine. We have the utmost confidence in him. I know he has confidence in himself,” Vanvleet said. “I’m happy to see him back with that energy and that vibe where he’s not feeling like it’s him against the world. Even if it is, he’s still got the locker room, the franchise, he still has everybody with him. … We’re all in this together and Pascal is going to be a huge, huge part of what we do around here.”
Vanvleet’s maturity and leadership qualities were on full display on Monday morning and while it may be difficult to know what to expect from a very new and young Raptors roster next season, fans should feel good about the leadership they have in place for years to come.