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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – With everything Fred VanVleet is doing for this season’s iteration of the Toronto Raptors, they’re hoping that they can return the favour.

VanVleet continues to make his case for a spot in next month’s NBA All-Star Game, and it’s a compelling one. The 27-year-old guard is averaging 21.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 6.7 assists in his sixth season, all personal bests. He leads the league in minutes played, distance travelled and deflections per game, and ranks 11th in value over replacement player.

His timing is impeccable, too. With fan voting – which opened on Christmas Day – ramping up, VanVleet has scored at least 30 points in four of the last six games, while accumulating 47 assists and hitting 35 of his 74 three-point attempts over that stretch.

He’s doing just about everything he can to punch his ticket to basketball’s annual mid-season showcase, which will take place in Cleveland on February 20, but he faces stiff competition in an Eastern Conference loaded with established vets and rising stars at his position.

That’s where his teammates and coaches know they’ve got a part to play. The chances of VanVleet earning his first career all-star selection are a lot higher if he’s there representing a winning club.

“I would imagine we’re gonna have to start winning more games,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said on Tuesday night. “We’re gonna have to climb up the ladder a little bit. If we do, he’s going to have to get some consideration.”

A four-game winning streak is a good place to start. With Wednesday’s 117-111 victory over Milwaukee, Toronto improved to 18-17 on the season, getting back above .500 for the first time since early November.

It was a tale of two halves, with the Raptors surrendering a season-worst 77 points to a Bucks team missing their best player, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and head coach, Mike Budenholzer, over the first 24 minutes and then holding them to 34 points on 27 per cent shooting in the final two quarters.

Although they had some trouble closing the door during a jittery final few minutes, it was another quality outing for a club that’s beginning to build some momentum now that it’s finally healthy. The Raptors have climbed to seventh place in the crowded East standings and are just a couple games behind fifth.

“It’s a good win on the back end of a back-to-back,” Nurse said afterwards. “It’s just wanting to see progress with this group and figure some things out. I think the thing we figured out tonight was we didn’t have our best juices flowing, just no other way to say it than that, but it’s a long game and you hang in there and you figure out a way to get them flowing.”

Winning isn’t a prerequisite to earn an all-star berth necessarily, but it matters, especially to the coaches, who vote in the reserves. Over the course of the last five All-Star Games, an average of 26 players have been selected each year, factoring in injury replacements. On average, just five of those 26 players came from losing teams.

Over the last five years, a total of seven players have made their all-star debuts while representing losing teams: Zion Williamson and Zach LaVine last season, Devin Booker and Brandon Ingram in 2020, Nikola Vucevic in 2019, Kristaps Porzingis in 2018, and Antetokounmpo and Kemba Walker in 2017. One thing those guys had in common was they were all top-16 draft picks.

Historically, if fans or coaches are going to look past a team’s record, they’re far more likely to do it for a highly touted or brand-name player, usually in the first few years of that player’s career. While VanVleet shouldn’t be sneaking up on anybody at this point, he’s been gradually ascending and was a fringe candidate a year ago, his profile isn’t that of a prototypical all-star. In fact, he would only be the fifth undrafted player to make an all-star team over the past four decades, joining Ben Wallace, Brad Miller, John Starks and Moses Malone.

There’s little doubt that he’s deserving on merit alone, but there are a lot of great players in the NBA and only 24 spots available, 12 per conference, which is why there are always deserving players that don’t make the cut.

This year, you can reasonably make a case for at least nine guards in the East. That’s not including DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler and Jaylen Brown, who have played the majority of their minutes at forward this season, or Kyrie Irving and Ben Simmons, for obvious reasons. Depending on how the two ‘wild card’ spots shake out, and what position the aforementioned DeRozan, Butler and Brown are listed at, there will only be space for as many as five or six of them.

James Harden and LaVine, who are having great seasons for the East’s top-two clubs, are locks. From there, Trae Young is putting up big numbers for an underachieving Hawks team and Bradley Beal is having a down season for the overachieving Wizards. Kyle Lowry and Jrue Holiday, a pair of veteran point guards, will be in the mix for their winning contributions to the East’s other two top-four teams. Then there are potential first-timers playing for the conference’s middle tiered teams: Cleveland’s Darius Garland, Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball, and VanVleet.

Without the track record of Lowry and Holiday, or the profile of Young and Beal, every win Toronto can muster over the coming weeks could be the difference between VanVleet separating himself, especially from those younger candidates, and falling just short.

The Raptors will play eight more games before fan voting concludes on Jan. 22. And thanks to their jam-packed January schedule, reworked to make up last month’s postponed games, they’ll have 12 or 13 contests before the coaches’ ballots are due.

It’s hard to know what to expect when the first returns of fan voting are released this Thursday. The assumption is that VanVleet won’t fare especially well – he finished 10th among East guards last year and isn’t a household name around the league in the same way some of these other guys are – but don’t underestimate the voting power of Canadian basketball fans. Remember, the Raptors had a player voted in as an all-star starter in six straight seasons, between 2015-2020.

Even if it plays out the way most people are expecting, and VanVleet doesn’t get in via the fans, he has to feel pretty good about his chances with the coaches, who should have a greater appreciation for what the Raptors’ point guard brings to the table.

It goes well beyond the numbers. Like his predecessor, VanVleet’s true value lies in the intangibles: his impact on winning, and his natural leadership qualities.

“He’s really the focal point guard on his own,” Nurse said. “Certainly with Kyle gone, he’s had to run the team a little bit more. He’s playing great. He does a lot of things well and it isn’t just scoring or assisting. He’s a great rebounder, he runs the team, he finishes at the rim, shoots threes. He’s continuing to get better.”

On a quiet night by his recent standards, 19 points on 7-of-18 shooting, VanVleet’s fingerprints were still all over Wednesday’s victory. After Tuesday’s win over San Antonio, in which he scored 33 points and shot 7-for-14 from long range, he picked up where he left off, hitting five threes in the opening half.

Although many of VanVleet’s strip steals end up getting credited as blocks, the point guard, generously listed at 6-foot-1, got a rare genuine block late in the third quarter when he met 6-foot-11 Bucks big man Sandro Mamukelashvili at the rim. Then, a few minutes later, he was back to his old tricks, pocking the ball away from Holiday near midcourt.

Coming into this week’s back-to-back, the Raptors were outscoring opponents by 5.9 points per 100 possessions with VanVleet on the floor, but were being outscored by 14.6 points with him off it. That net difference of 20.5 points ranked second in the NBA behind reigning MVP Nikola Jokic. You can bet Nurse was familiar with that stat. Over these past couple games, he’s had starter heavy units, including Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes, on the floor for most of VanVleet’s rest minutes.

On Wednesday, it was Siakam and Anunoby who led the way, combining for 55 points on just 33 shots. They’ve both looked like all-stars at various points this season, Anunoby before going down with a hip injury in November, and Siakam since coming back from off-season shoulder surgery. However, VanVleet’s been the constant.

“What he’s doing is incredible, for himself and the team,” said Raptors two-way forward Justin Champagnie. “He’s a big part of this team and he’s been putting on a show for everybody to see he deserves to be an all-star. Me, personally, as his teammate, not being biased, I think he deserves it. He’s been doing his thing and it’s been fun to watch, man.”

“I feel like he definitely deserves it,” said Siakam. “He’s been putting in all the work and the numbers are showing it… Raptors fans, do what you do and let’s get him out there.”

He’s done his job, and then some. We’ll see if the Raptors can continue to hold up their end and help VanVleet become a first-time all-star.

“I was pretty close last year,” VanVleet said. “We’ll see what happens this year. I’ll continue to put the team first and put winning first and see where all those accolades and those accomplishments fall. I don’t think I need to tell you guys how I feel about myself.”