Physically, Fred VanVleet is nobody's idea of a lockdown defender. He is 6 feet tall, and his 6-2 wingspan is one of the shortest in the NBA. In street clothes, you could mistake him for an average 26-year-old guy. In his Toronto Raptors uniform, he is a pint-sized anomaly. Today's teams stack their rosters with as many rangy, 6-7-and-taller players as possible, so they can clog passing lanes with limbs.
Before the pandemic that prompted a hiatus, VanVleet led the league in deflections. Only two players averaged more steals. He played 36 minutes a game for the No. 2 defense in the league, starting for the team that will defend its title when the 2019-20 season resumes on July 30. That he has managed all this is extraordinary, considering he has never seemed like an imposing presence.
When Bryan Ott, VanVleet's coach at Auburn High School in Rockford, Illinois, talked to college and NBA personnel, he made a point to bring up his defense -- no one ever asked. "He doesn't look the part," former Wichita State assistant coach Chris Jans said, and when he arrived on campus the staff didn't see him as a stopper.
"The thing that is most easily discernible when you watch Fred on the basketball court is he's not the biggest and he's not the most athletic and he's not the fastest or the quickest or [able to] jump the highest," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. Pay attention long enough, though, and you'll see his intelligence, instincts and intestinal fortitude. "As a coach, wherever you want him to be, he's going to be there."
Heads turned inside the Raptors organization two years ago, when the Houston Rockets visited Toronto. VanVleet picked up Chris Paul full-court, and in the fourth quarter poked the ball loose, pressured him and stuck to him like a shadow. Paul threw a rushed, errant pass to avoid an eight-second violation and turned it over, leading to an easy Raptors layup. VanVleet made the superstar look silly and picked up an assist.
"That was a moment, I think, where everybody was like, 'All right, he's getting after it,'" VanVleet said. "And you could see that it caught Chris off guard a little bit."
Back then VanVleet was playing 20 minutes a game, an undrafted backup trying to make his way in the league. A year later, he hounded Stephen Curry in the NBA Finals as the one in the Raptors' box-and-one. Ott saw VanVleet "relishing that role and taking it on with such enthusiasm," and the high school coach's heart beat with pride.
"That is the Auburn Knight in Fred right there," Ott said.
For 21 years, Ott's Knights have played man-to-man, full-court-pressure defense from tip-off until the final buzzer. "We are relentless," Ott said. There is no celebrating after made shots, only full-on sprints to get in position to deny passing lanes.
If the opponent manages to advance past halfcourt, their scheme is designed to force the ball to one side and keep it there. They hard-hedge every ball screen, fight through every down screen and front the post. "Everything we do is really hard to do," Ott said, so they have to practice it to the point that it becomes natural. In competitive drills, the losers run.
In games, a defensive error is the most surefire way to get yanked. When Auburn executes properly, life is hell for the opposing offense.
"I was kind of brainwashed into straight-up man-to-man, pressuring, tough defense," VanVleet said.
Initially, though, Ott wasn't confident that a freshman VanVleet could keep bigger, quicker and older guards out of the paint. He earned a spot on the varsity team when it was shorthanded at a tournament around Christmas, but Ott only played him selectively the rest of the year. And while VanVleet grasped off-the-ball concepts easily, Ott hid him on less threatening players even as a sophomore. VanVleet didn't like that.
"Fred always thought he could guard anybody," Ott said.
By his junior year, Ott agreed. As a senior, VanVleet guarded the most dangerous perimeter player every game and usually stymied him. Auburn finished third in the state despite having no starter taller than 6 feet at the state tournament. (Its 6-2 center had torn an ACL.)
Ott remains amazed by VanVleet's learning curve, his understanding of angles and his knack for getting the ball back on the rare occasion that he turned it over. VanVleet loved picking people's pockets, and he hated hearing that there was anything on the court he couldn't do.
"Everybody was always doubting him," Ott said, "because, I guess, what they're seeing, the visual, it's not telling 'em what they want."
VanVleet grew into the kind of defender Ott couldn't keep off the floor and the kind of leader that made other kids defend harder. "Fred has a nasty disposition," Ott said. "He does not want to get beat by anybody." He didn't particularly like the weight room, but he got stronger because he wanted to be able to make ballhandlers uncomfortable.
"You don't get many Freds in your life," Ott said. "You're lucky to have one ever."
At a Raptors practice, a guest told assistant coach Nate Bjorkgren that VanVleet looked like he was back on the AAU circuit. The guest was Doc Cornell, whose Rockford-based Pryme Tyme team routinely upset shoe-sponsored squads when a teenage VanVleet was running the show. One tournament victory in 2011 in Minneapolis came after VanVleet spent the five-hour drive in the trunk, sharing the space with basketballs and suitcases.
"He's having fun, he's loose, he's not tensed up," Cornell said, recalling the practice. "He's just playing loose. And [Nick] Nurse is doing the stuff that people say don't work."
Nurse has turned Toronto into the NBA's most creative, radical defensive team. For VanVleet, the fun part is that the players have "freedom to morph and figure things out on the fly." He is encouraged to be aggressive and make plays, and the experimentation has made him more open-minded about team defense. This is not, however, the first time VanVleet has executed funky coverages.
Pryme Tyme, just as vertically challenged as Auburn, played a lot of "junk defense," Cornell said: Box-and-one, triangle-and-two, 1-3-1, constant pressing and trapping. "We had to be flying all over the court at all times. Coaches would be like, 'Man, I thought you had seven, eight people out there.'" When Cornell called for the "all over," it meant he wanted two defenders on the ball at all times.
Cornell instructed Pryme Tyme to play like gnats at a picnic, i.e. "irritate the shit out of all the other teams." His schemes were different than Ott's, but they shared a philosophy: Non-stop defensive intensity can compensate for a lack of size.
"We became the gnat," Cornell said. "We're going to force you to get that ball out of your hands and do something stupid with it."
VanVleet fit perfectly. He started countless fast breaks and made an art form out of swiping down at the ball when taller players tried to shoot over him. He demanded to defend players ranked higher than him. His attitude, in Cornell's words, was "f--- you, I'm not scared of you." That mindset trickled down.
"Fred made me look like a damn hell of a great-ass f---ing coach," Cornell said. "He made me look like I was goddamn Phil Jackson and [John] Calipari and Rick Pitino all put together. Shit, I'm not going to take all the credit. My thing was just to motivate and get their asses to play defense and don't back down, and he did the rest."
As a college freshman, VanVleet came off the bench behind Malcolm Armstead. There was an adjustment period, playing against NCAA competition, but midway through the year "he didn't seem like the same guy," Marshall said. VanVleet challenged Armstead in practice, to the point where the fifth-year senior campaigned for his backup to get more minutes and play alongside him.
Marshall's motto is "play angry." VanVleet knew he had to show Marshall he could contribute defensively. "His ears and eyes were wide open," Jans said, and the staff appreciated his serious, competitive approach. One day, playing 2-on-2 basketball in the pool at Marshall's house, VanVleet challenged the coach's 12-year-old daughter to play harder against her older brother: "Come on, Maggie! You gotta do a little better! Let's go! You gotta be able to check Kellen!"
VanVleet has what Marshall calls heavy hands: "If his hand gets on the ball, he's gonna get it," which makes him a pest digging the ball out of the post and badgering drivers in the gaps. Jans, who went over scouting reports with him, raved about VanVleet's anticipation, how he "measures people." He gets a sense of the opponent's rhythm then disrupts it.
"I wish there was a way to quantify basketball IQ," Jans said, because he'd bet his life on VanVleet ranking in the NBA's top 10 percent. "I would love to be able to jump inside his body and his brain and to see how he looks at the game."
The Shockers made the Final Four in VanVleet's freshman season, and they started 35-0 before a heartbreaking NCAA Tournament loss to Kentucky when he was a sophomore. They were stingy for his entire tenure and had the nation's top-ranked defense in his senior year, by which point he was a legend in Wichita.
VanVleet didn't receive an invite to the Draft Combine, though, and when his agent told NBA executives he didn't want to be stashed overseas or in the G League, nobody picked him. "He's one of those guys that's never met the eye test his whole life," Jans said. The concern was that he didn't have the tools to get it done at the next level.
To Toronto assistant coach Adrian Griffin, VanVleet checks every box. "You don't have to be the fastest," Griffin said. "Knowledge is quickness." And, sometimes, less is more. Griffin preaches the gospel of fundamentals, pointing to the path the Raptors took to their first championship. One slight mistake against Milwaukee or Golden State, and they were giving up a layup or an open 3 "before you can blink."
Marshall remembers Curry's body language last June. "He did not like Fred guarding him," the Wichita State coach said. "It was obvious. And Fred would just get in there, get into him and give him nothing that he wanted." VanVleet denied Curry, fought through screens, bumped him, annoyed him and contested his shots.
"He's running around and doing everything," Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. "He's putting his body, his blood, sweat and tears into what he was doing."
In the clincher, VanVleet chased Curry around and still found the energy to score 22 points, including three gutsy fourth-quarter 3s. All series, he was hyped up on adrenaline, and his entire job was to stay engaged on defense. He said this made offense easier: When the Raptors had the ball, he played freely, with the confidence of a giant.
"I'm not doing all that for nothing," VanVleet said. "Right? Now I want to go down here and score and I want to get involved. I'm working my butt off, so let me get rewarded. It's just one of those things, the game will give you what you give it."
VanVleet was a reserve in name only in the Finals, starting next to Lowry in the second half in the last four games and a staple in Toronto's closing lineup. But when this season started, Nurse planned to keep the first five fluid. VanVleet just never gave the coaching staff an excuse to remove him.
Sitting on the Raptors' bench in February, guard Terence Davis watched VanVleet and Lowry make a stream of defensive plays and commented to a teammate about their chutzpah. They're "small guys, but they don't play that way," Davis said. Around the same time, VanVleet asked one of their coaches a question: When was the last time a playoff team started two 6-foot players?
"That's something that we don't talk about, but it's something that is in our back pocket," VanVleet said. "This is not a small accomplishment, you know? It's pretty impressive what we're able to do, and I don't know how to explain it. I think it's just two really good players and very smart players, just figuring things out."
Defending the primary ball-handler is VanVleet's responsibility. "It makes it easy 'cause I don't gotta guard nobody," Lowry said. The arrangement allows the six-time All-Star to freelance, like a smaller Draymond Green.
"I think Freddy is one of the most elite defenders there is on the ball," Lowry said. "There's not many people like him. He keeps a tracking count on who he's stolen the ball from. I'm glad I'm not on that list right now."
VanVleet and Lowry are both basketball junkies, and they have a bond that dates back to VanVleet picking up Lowry full-court at his first training camp. "He had that fiery attitude," Lowry said, "but it was calm." No ego, no disrespect, just a rookie, unafraid, wanting to win every possession.
"I accepted him as my little brother right away," Lowry said. "And now that's my little brother and we're family forever."
Lowry may have respected him from Day 1, but the rest of the league took a while to catch up. "Every time I checked into the game, the other team would run a play to go right at me," VanVleet said. Occasionally, a taller player will still try to bully him as if it were a mismatch.
"It's a very surface observation," VanVleet said, "where it's like, 'All right, we got a small guy, let's post him up.' Nah, you can't score on me. You gotta really have some moves and have some offensive game. It's not just scoring on me 'cause you're bigger than me."
Lowry finds it amusing because it's "exactly the same" mistake some opponents make against him. "I laugh," Lowry said. "And I say, 'Go ahead, have fun. Have fun!'"
As effective as VanVleet has been, he hasn't been getting much buzz for the All-Defensive team. Perhaps this is because his best defensive plays don't pair well with the steam-nose emoji.
"The things that attract people to you as a defender are not always what makes a good defender," VanVleet said. "Like, if you're flopping, or you say you're a good defender, or you're beating your chest or you're diving on the floor, OK. But are you going to execute your defensive game plan or are you going to make stupid decisions? Are you going to send a guy the right way? Are you going to box out? Are you going to contest?"
The biggest thing, VanVleet said, is having the heart to do what needs to be done every single time: "Do you get embarrassed when people score on you? Do you get mad when people score on you, or is it just a part of the game?" He believes a truly great defender must hate being scored on, but be unselfish enough to help his teammates and allow them to help him.
In a way, VanVleet is the embodiment of an evolving league, one in which size matters, but not as much as smarts and strength. You can choose to build your defense around a paint-bound rim protector, but you might be better off looking for players who can cut off penetration on the perimeter. It helps if they can also switch, think quickly and adapt to different coverages.
VanVleet acknowledged he'd be a more devastating defender if he were 6-7 with a 7-4 wingspan, but he is clearly sturdy enough to take bumps as-is. He usually doesn't care much about public recognition, but All-Defense is one honor that would mean a lot to him. "The top of my basketball pyramid is winning," he said, and defense is directly beneath that. At every level, VanVleet believed he belonged, and he saw defense as a separator, a way to get on the court, a way to correct people's first impressions.