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Fred VanVleet wins competition to become 15th Raptor

Toronto Raptors' Fred VanVleet drives to the basket against Detroit Pistons' Andre Drummond (0) during the second half of an NBA preseason basketball game Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Auburn Hills, Mich.(AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Ever since the Toronto Raptors agreed to a one-year deal with free agent Jared Sullinger on July 14, the team has had 14 guaranteed contracts on the books. Around the league this week, we’ve seen that having a guaranteed contract is not going to save you from getting cut — ask former Boston Celtic R.J. Hunter or former Phoenix Sun Archie Goodwin. 

With Toronto, though, there are no such cuttable contracts: the team has patiently invested years of development into high-ceiling prospects Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira, and Norman Powell went from second-round pick to starting in the playoffs in under a year.

This meant that the six undrafted players who were given invitations to training camp were all going to be battling for the very last roster spot on the team. Jarrod Uthoff and Yanick Moriera evidently failed to make an impression in camp: both players were given just a single preseason appearance, and were clearly not considered contenders. The remaining four auditioners were regular rotation members in the Raptors’ preseason:

The Contenders

E.J. Singler

Singler is only two years younger than his brother, Kyle, of the Oklahoma City Thunder, but has yet to make his NBA debut. Last March, the 905 (Toronto’s D-League affiliate) made a trade for Singler, and he averaged 14.7 points while nailing 47.5% of his three-pointers in the last 10 games of the season. Singler and the Raptors were already arranging for his return to the 905 a few months ago.

Brady Heslip

Even in the context of the NBA, Heslip has a remarkable jump shot, with the ball ripping purposefully through the net seemingly every time. Although Heslip is undersized, it seemed to me like he was making a positive impact on the game each time he came in.

It seems like Heslip could benefit from the NBDL. During a 20-game stint with the Reno Bighorns in 2014-15, he nailed 44.3 percent of his three-point attempts while taking more than 12  per game.

If Don Nelson were still coaching in the NBA, I think he’d want to have Heslip around.

Drew Crawford

Seeing as Crawford was given 19 minutes per game over all seven of Toronto’s preseason games, the Raptors coaching staff was clearly considering giving Crawford the role. As a three-and-d’ wing, though, Crawford had the misfortune of competing to get on a team that already had similar skill-sets.

The Victor: Fred VanVleet

VanVleet had a couple of fortuitous factors working to his advantage. First, at 22 years old, he was a full four years younger than his other auditioners. His second advantage is that sophomore guard Delon Wright is out after shoulder surgery for at least the first two months of the season, leaving the team with no options at point guard behind Cory Joseph.

I’m sure it’s not a coincidence that VanVleet’s game resembles Joseph’s, too. An intelligent and heady player, I see VanVleet (wearing #23) contributing by making tenacious plays like this one:


There’s a lot that happens here, none of which makes the box score. First we see VanVleet communicating with his teammates to switch onto the much larger Kelly Oubre, Jr. (6’7”, wearing #12); then he pesters the ball as a help defender; then he snuffs out Oubre’s baseline drive (with help); and then he starts the fast break off of a rebound with a quick outlet pass. It’s a winning play.

As Powell’s large role with the team last year shows, head coach Dwane Casey is going to give minutes to the players who deserve them, regardless of draft pedigree. We’ll see what that means for VanVleet going forward: His deal in Toronto could last for two years, or he could be cut tomorrow with just a $50k cap hit.

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