Unexpected role player has proven to be x-factor for Toronto Raptors

Heading into this season, one of the main questions surrounding the Toronto Raptors was who would step up and emerge as the go-to guy on the second unit. 

Would it be CJ Miles, who the team acquired in the offseason? Would it be Norman Powell, who Toronto inked to a lucrative extension? How about backup point guard Delon Wright, who showed flashes of productivity last year? Or, would Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, or Lucas Nogueira step up off the bench in the frontcourt?

You probably didn’t guess that Fred VanVleet would emerge as an important piece for the team.

Although the second-year pro out of Wichita State is only averaging 6.0 points and 3.0 assists over 16.2 minutes per game so far this year, he has earned the respect of Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who has rewarded him with additional minutes recently.

“I know what he knows and he also knows what he doesn’t know and he doesn’t try to do what he can’t do, and you trust that,” Casey said Sunday afternoon, per Doug Smith of The Toronto Star. “He understands the offence inside and out, he goes and talks to the other players, even the starters. Whether it’s Kyle (Lowry) or DeMar (DeRozan), he’ll talk to them about what’s going on and what he sees, (offer) suggestions. With that information, that knowledge he’s an old head, an old soul (and) you have trust in him.”

Over his last 10 games, VanVleet is averaging 8.6 points and 4.2 assists in 20.2 minutes per game, taking on a main ball-handling role behind Lowry on the second unit.

“Of course, those guys are starting to trust me more and more each game,” VanVleet said on Monday. “I got to earn it, I have to make the right plays. I just want to make their jobs easier, there is so much pressure on them offensively. And defensively I can take some of the onus off them as well.”

While he’s only 23 years old, VanVleet seems to be wise beyond his years and is willing to be patient as he continues to develop.

“Those guys aren’t resting, but if they’re not guarding a primary scorer it’ll save just a little bit and maybe that will help down the stretch,” VanVleet explained. “Those are things you have to earn and it takes time and I’m just trying to have the same approach every time.”

As someone who controlled the ball in college, coach Casey values him for his ability to demand the rock, thus taking some of the pressure off of the dynamic duo of All-Stars.

“He’s got to go out there and get it, put those other guys in their place and that’s very difficult to do, too, for a young player, to tell a veteran where to go, what to do, (say) ‘Give me the ball.’ But that’s what he does,” Casey noted.

As the season rolls on, VanVleet will likely continue to be a major part of Toronto’s rotation. As someone who has already earned respect from his coach and teammates, his role could even expand on a team that seems to be destined for the playoffs.

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