The 2020-2021 NBA season was one of many firsts for the Toronto Raptors. Amidst playing in Florida, practicing in a ballroom, and losing half of their roster to a viral infection midway through the season, it’s easy to forget that it was also the first year in which the Raptors did not have a single All-Star since 2014.
This season, the North hopes to turn their fortunes around and provide its fans with something more material to cheer for as the ball tips off at All-Star weekend in Cleveland next February.
It’s unlikely that either Pascal Siakam or OG Anunoby will pick up significant traction from fan voting or media appraisal when it comes to consideration for the contest – not because of a lack of performance – but because of each’s respective time missed due to injuries. Siakam has already been sidelined for 11 games this season while he was rehabilitating from his right shoulder surgery, and Anunoby has missed 12 because of a hip pointer that he suffered in practice a few weeks ago. The only other pseudo-candidate – aside from Fred VanVleet whom one might consider a sports betting favourite – is Scottie Barnes.
For a rookie, Barnes is playing about as well as anybody could have hoped. Given what his scouting report read at the draft, he’s performing to a level approximately 80% greater than what anybody thought he would be this early in his career. On the season, he ranks second among all rookies in points per game and rebounds per game, and ranks top five in assists, steals, and blocks. Over his last nine contests, he’s shown astronomical development in his shooting ability, which was pegged to be the greatest weakness in his arsenal, shooting 41% from deep on 3.9 attempts per game. If his shot continues falling at a rate even five percent lower than it has over this stretch, his spacing on the floor will be noticeable, and that will open up driving lanes for the likes of Siakam and VanVleet.
Still, it’s rare for a rookie to be named an All-Star. The last player to accomplish this feat was Blake Griffin in 2011, when he averaged nearly 23 points, 12 rebounds, and four assists. For comparison, Barnes is current averaging eight fewer points, four fewer rebounds, and one less dime, and it surely doesn’t help that his team currently ranks 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Despite owning a sub-500 record, there has been one constant beam of light for the Raptors over the past couple months, and his name is Fred VanVleet. When Kyle Lowry announced via his Instagram story that he would be taking his talents to South Beach, the spotlight – and the responsibility of leading the Raptors – immediately became VanVleet’s. Through his first 26 games in an increased role, he has done everything that has been asked of him and more.
His raw stats alone put him in the All-Star conversation. There are very few players in NBA who can stand under six-feet tall and put up 19 points, five rebounds, and six assists consistently. Not only are his stats improved from a season ago, but he’s also scoring more efficiently, having increased his effective field goal percentage – a metric that adjusts for a three-pointer being worth more than a two – by approximately six percent.
Throughout VanVleet’s career, the greatest criticism of his game has always been his inefficiency shooting at the rim. Be it due to a poor shot selection, lack of leaping ability, or just the fact that bigs contesting his shots inside stand a foot taller than him, VanVleet shot a measly 42.9% within ten feet of the basket last year. Now, he has upped that figure to 45.4%, while also recognizing that this is a weakness of his game and deciding to shoot less frequently at the basket.
In an interview with Sportsnet’s William Lou early in November, VanVleet was open about his aspirations to earn accolades. “I definitely would like to be an all-star. I want to win all the awards. I want to be All-Defensive… Those are all goals that I have. The good thing for me is that I probably won’t achieve any of those if we aren’t a good team or a top team.”
While VanVleet is certainly correct that the probability of yielding an All-Star selection is greater when your team has a winning record, the losses cannot be chalked up to his lack of performance. As aforementioned, two of the top three players on the roster have missed eight and eleven games respectively. VanVleet also accounts for the most win shares on the team at 2.4 – essentially claiming that VanVleet is solely responsible for 18% of the Raptors wins this season. He also has a box-plus minus of +2.2 thus far, which indicates that per 100 possessions, he adds 2.6 points to his team’s differential relative to the league average. For context, a mark of approximately +3.0 lands a player among the top 20 players in the league, and anything above +2.0 gets him in the thick of the All-Star conversation.
For VanVleet, he’ll just need to continue down the path that he’s on. Individually, there aren’t many things that he’ll need to improve upon if he wants to find himself in Cleveland during the Family Day long weekend. Rather, he’ll need some help from his teammates to increase the tally in the win column before fan voting begins.