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Fred VanVleet is a dark horse candidate to solve the Phoenix Suns point guard problem

Guest columnists Colin Connors shares first-hand insight into a sneaky good free agent this summer.

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Toronto Raptors v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Guest columnist Colin Connors from joins Bright Side to share his story on their excellent backup point guard, Fred VanVleet.

Most of you don’t know VanVleet from Spike Fishtail. VanVleet was a hugely successful college player with the Shockers and has since shocked the great white north with his super-effective play at point guard after being taken in the second round two years ago. He was a Sixth Man of the Year candidate this past year.

VanVleet is a restricted free agent this summer.

By: Colin Connors

Trading the Heat’s 2021 pick for Mikal Bridges on draft night signaled that the Phoenix Suns are (at least in their eyes) finished their extended rebuild, and have their core of the future. Nevertheless, as promising a young nucleus of Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and Deandre Ayton is going forward, there is still one thing missing: a point guard.

Many have suggested trading for Terry Rozier as their PG of the future, while others have suggested acquiring Jeremy Lin as a placeholder. However, both would require the Suns’ to give up even more assets and ancillary pieces. For no other reason than retaining their other young assets for a rainy day, the prospect of signing a restricted free agent is clearly the more attractive option.

In recent weeks, rumors have circled about them being interested in Marcus Smart,

However, considering their respective skill sets...

Raptors’ restricted free agent Fred VanVleet is the better fit

While his counting stats (8.6 ppg, 3.2 apg, 41% 3FG) made many casual fans question his Sixth Man of the Year nomination, VanVleet deserved it—he is a winning player through and through.

Although some advanced stats are confusing, they are all trying to answer the same question: who plays the right way? Watch any Raptors game this year and it’s unquestionable that VanVleet does; the ball never sticks in his hands longer than it should, he never chases stats, and he always makes the right play. VanVleet’s ability to take care of the intangibles created such a measurable impact from an analytics perspective that he became the poster boy of the advanced stats revolution as nearly every stat made him seem like a damn All-Star.

The most illuminating of them all is that he finished top five in net rating for all rotation players in the entire league, right behind Stephen Curry and Chris Paul. Pretty good company, right?

It’s no accident he was top twenty in the league for overall +/- despite not even playing 20 minutes in a game until late November.

So where does VanVleet fit in with the Suns?

Well, anywhere. VanVleet is a chameleon. He has such a well-rounded skill set and basketball IQ that he can camouflage himself into any role.

Need him to be the primary ball handler? He was in the 92nd percentile in the entire league for all offense created including passes (per Synergy Sports) and led the Raptors second unit (which is of similar inexperience to the young Suns, for the record) to the 2nd best net rating of any five-man lineup in the league.

Need him to play a complementary role to high usage stars like Booker or Ayton? He was in the 89th percentile for catch and shoot efficiency, and consistently closed games alongside the Raptors starters. That closing lineup of VanVleet with the Raptors starters posted an astronomical net rating of 24.6— that would have been tops in the league if they had surpassed the 300 minute threshold.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Suns should chase a veteran lead guard to balance out the youth of their core, but, at 24, VanVleet’s maturity is well beyond his years.

His nickname amongst Raptors fans is “Steady Freddy”, and for good reason as he never wavers. VanVleet watches a ton of film, he’s measured in his decision-making, and he knows the intangibles of the game so well that his on-court composure is comparable to that of a ten-year vet. Despite beginning the year outside the rotation, by midseason he had Lowry and Derozan’s ear. In fact, Lowry even admitted to asking VanVleet “what he sees” midgame in case Lowry missed something he could exploit.

It isn’t just this year either. Former Raptors assistant coach Rex Kalamian supposedly would ask VanVleet for his judgment on pick and roll defensive schemes last year when VanVleet only played in 37 games. Safe to say, he knows the game. That combination of knowledge, poise, and work ethic would allow him to be the emotional leader of the young Suns squad, while also following (roughly) the same timeline.

Despite what his diminutive stature (6’0”, 195 pounds) would suggest, VanVleet is also is a more-than-solid defender. He makes up for his lack of size by consistently outworking other players, especially in pick and roll where he ranked in the 71st percentile for defensive efficiency. Having a good defender at the point of attack is especially important for Ayton’s initial years as his poor block rate at Arizona suggests that it may take him a few years to become the elite rim protector many project him to evolve into.

While it remains to be seen exactly what kind of offense the newly hired Igor Kokoskov will run, based on his track record, it seems he is the perfect coach to maximize VanVleet.

Kokoskov’s past offenses have generally relied primarily on constant fluidity of motion and a lot of high pick and roll -- that style of play is tailor-made for VanVleet. As Raptors fans saw this year, constant motion allows him to use his high basketball IQ to exploit the defensive miscues that come from defending multiple actions. Additionally, high pick and roll is arguably VanVleet’s best offensive skill as it allows him to play downhill and dice-up retreating bigs to create for himself and others. Both of these scenarios allow him to maximize his offensive savvy and render his average athleticism a non-issue.

Whether it is George Hill on the 2016-17 Jazz or Goran Dragic on the 2017 Slovenian National team, Kokoskov’s system and tutelage has consistently caused lead guards who are pedestrian athletes to play the best basketball of their careers. One can only expect VanVleet would grow similarly under his watch.

Watch VanVleet drop 25 on the Lakers this year.

Restricted Free Agent with poison pill balloon

Unfortunately for Suns fans, VanVleet is a restricted free agent so the Raptors can match any offer thrown his way (and they are more than motivated to keep him).

However, the Raptors will likely be capped out going into next season, meaning if the Suns blow VanVleet away with an offer, then matching that salary likely isn’t in the cards for Canada’s team.

Restrictions on VanVleet’s deal-- due to his unique undrafted contract situation -- mean that if the Suns’ do decide to wow him with a contract then it would need to be back-loaded after a reasonable 8-9 million per year the first two years.

Ed. Notes: Reminder that the Suns have $15-20 million to spend in free agency.

VanVleet was a second-round pick, meaning that under the CBA rule (see question #43) he can only be offered up to the mid-level exception which figures to be about $9 million this season. And the second year can only be up to a 5% raise. It’s that third year where the shackles come off.

A VanVleet deal would be like the ones Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe got from the Nets two years ago, with third year balloon salaries way over their current value to make up for the relative underpay in years one and two (each got $19 million in years three and four, which kick in this coming season).

For example, VanVleet’s deal could be something like this the next four years: $8 million, $9 million, $19-20 million, $20 million for $57-ish million over four years.

On the good side, that leaves the Suns more spending money this year and next. After that, Devin Booker’s new contract would knock the Suns out of free agency anyway. And, VanVleet does appear to fit the bill of future starter, rather than career role player. The Suns would annually still have, as a cap team, the mid-level exception to spend on adding new talent, plus Milwaukee’s first round pick (eventually) and their own picks.

On the bad side, that’s a LOT of money in years three and four. The Suns had better expect him to be a good starter at that point. And, it’s worth noting that both Crabbe and Johnson were matched by their capped out teams anyway. The Suns could miss the whole first few days of free agency just to wait out the Raptors on the offer sheet, only to lose him anyway. Though Crabbe was eventually traded to the Nets a year later when Portland realized they REALLY wouldn’t want to pay Crabbe $19 million in 2018-19. Miami might be wishing they could do the same with Johnson. Neither is a starting caliber player on a playoff team.

back to Colin...

Bottom Line

This may turn some fans off as back-loading a deal for a guy who averaged 8 points a game this year would jeopardize future cap space to star-chase or re-sign promising young talent.

But, at the rate VanVleet is improving it is more-than-plausible for him to develop into a player worthy of a salary in the mid-teens-- if he isn’t already. After all, he went from third-string PG to arguably the third most important player on a 59 win team within a single season.

VanVleet is nothing if he isn’t loyal, and has spoken candidly about his desire to stay in Toronto. But, as diehard Raptors fans know, his personal mantra is “Bet On Yourself”-- there’s even a little money bag within the B.O.Y. slogan on his merchandise.

So, it’s difficult to imagine if the Suns’ make him an offer he can’t refuse that he won’t cash in his chips and “secure the bag” that he has worked so hard for.

Suns’ fans can only hope they do.


Would you sign VanVleet to a big contract at $9 million for 2 years plus $15-20 million in years 3 and 4?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    Yes, he’s worth it and fits perfect
    (527 votes)
  • 43%
    No friggin way
    (412 votes)
939 votes total Vote Now

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