The Toronto Raptors were slipping in another third quarter. Armed with a 19-point halftime lead, the Raptors let off the gas, the Charlotte Hornets scored on nine consecutive possessions, and a frustrated Dwane Casey went to his bench. Enter Fred VanVleet late in the quarter, a somewhat unlikely stabilizing force. A third-string point guard at the heart of a good deal of Toronto's early success, VanVleet helped calm things, ultimately earning the close-out nod in the fourth and finishing the game a plus-11 with a career-best nine assists in Wednesday's win over Charlotte.
This was not an isolated incident. For weeks now, VanVleet has been the Raptors' plus-minus demigod, with the team outscoring opponents by 20.6 points per-100 possessions when he's on the floor this season. That mark is not only the best net rating on the team, it's the best mark in the entire NBA among qualified players. In other words, no player in the league has been playing to a more lopsided score, and even if the qualifiers are lowered, only Zaza Pachulia, Nene, and Jordan Bell can hang with VanVleet's plus-18.5 score per-48 minutes.
To see that kind of a deep impact may be surprising given VanVleet's box score production. In 20 games, he's averaging 5.8 points and 2.8 assists, and his 49.4 true-shooting percentage is below-average. A lot of that is owing to a cold start that saw him shoot 8-of-32 overall and 3-of-12 on threes over his first seven games—in the 13 games since, he's shooting 44.2 percent and 38.2 percent on threes, with a shot spectrum that looks directly out of an offseason Raptors board meeting.
VanVleet's production is not flashy, outside of the occasions on which he channels Kyle Lowry for a falling scoop-shot, a deflection in a passing lane, or a post-up defended against a much bigger player. Instead, VanVleet is leading the Raptors' second unit with savvy and intelligence, rarely making a mistake at either end of the floor. Casey raves about VanVleet's errorless play, trusting him to play eight of the team's 24 "clutch" minutes this year and more fourth-quarter minutes than anyone on the team.
On defense, VanVleet's timing in help is impeccable, and few players on the roster dig into post-ups like he does. He's also high-effort at all times, and those things in concert help make up for the size disadvantage he's at most nights. The Raptors have their best defensive rating with VanVleet on the floor, he's a part of three of their four best defensive fivesomes and five of their six best defensive threesomes, and only Aron Baynes has been on the floor for fewer points per-100 possessions among qualified players.
Offensively, VanVleet's decidedly pass-first, using just 18.8 percent of the team's possessions when he's on the court and posting a 24.6-percent assist rate. If there's a criticism of VanVleet's game so far this season, it's that he's finishing only 55.6 percent of his attempts at the rim and 26.7 percent of shots between 3-and-10 feet from the basket, an in-between area he worked on a lot this offseason and is confident will come around. He ranks only in the 39th percentile scoring as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. Still, he owns the team's best offensive rating, too, and teammates have a better effective field-goal percentage on passes from VanVleet than any other teammates.
The plan wasn't for VanVleet to be this big a piece for the Raptors. They liked him enough to sign him as an undrafted free agent last summer, to keep him when Delon Wright returned to health, and to trade Cory Joseph away, trusting their young depth at the position. But he was the third guard initially, and he appeared to at one point be on the fringes of the rotation before helping lead a comeback attempt against Washington that came up just short. Since Wright went back on the shelf, he’s averaging 20 minutes, and rather than roving overexposed in a larger sample, often without a second point guard on the court to help him, VanVleet is proving himself a legitimate NBA backup and an instrumental piece of some of the Raptors' best units.