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TSN Raptors Reporter

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VICTORIA. B.C. – There’s no shortage of similarities between Fred VanVleet and the player he succeeded as the Raptors’ starting point guard – his close friend, mentor and former backcourt partner Kyle Lowry.
 
You can add another to that already extensive list: the unending pursuit of pristine and lasting health.
 
Lowry was 28 when questions about his durability started to surface, as you may recall. It was the 2014-15 season. He was playing the best basketball of his NBA career, to that point, resulting in his first all-star selection. But as the months went by, the heavy minutes, substantial workload and his unrelenting style of play took a toll.
 
He dealt with a myriad of aches and pains, including a back injury that limited him late in the campaign and into the playoffs, where the Washington Wizards unceremoniously swept Toronto out of the first round. Noticeably hobbled, Lowry shot an abysmal 32 per cent in the series.
 
The Raptors did their part in exploring ways to better preserve their most important player. They spoke about reducing his minutes, which ended up becoming an annual discussion that always proved easier said than done. They brought in Cory Joseph to back up Lowry and take some pressure off him. Eventually, VanVleet would do the same, playing alongside him.
 
However, Lowry took matters into his own hands. In the summer of 2015, he went back to the drawing board. With his role expanding in recent years, he knew he had to take care of his body differently than he did earlier in his career. So, he hired a personal chef, dropped a bunch of weight and re-evaluated his training routine.
 
VanVleet is currently at a very similar stage of his career, like, eerily similar.
 
The Raptors guard is also 28. He’s also coming off his best season and first all-star appearance, and as his role has gotten bigger over the years, he’s also had to carry a substantial workload. He’s averaged roughly 37 minutes per game over the last three seasons, second-most in the NBA behind James Harden. During that stretch, he’s missed 55 games, with 47 of them coming in the second half of the season.
 
And so the Raptors face a familiar dilemma. They’ve got a fiercely competitive star point guard, the heart and soul of their franchise, who wants to play as much as possible and probably needs to play as much as possible for the team to be at its best. The problem is, they need that player to be at his best in April and in May, not in November and December. So, how do they preserve him over the course of a long and gruelling season?
 
“It's not easy,” head coach Nick Nurse said. “When you got a super competitive guy who's playing great and he wants to play, to rest him, to just say sorry it's your rest time, we don't care what's happening on the floor right now it’s your rest time, that's hard to do. But I think we learned a lot about how we can shift our team around without him in there and I think that we're going to need to be able to do that. I hope we can get it done.”
 
Like Lowry, protecting VanVleet from himself can be a challenge. He alluded to that earlier this week, admitting that he ignored his body late last season, as he played through various ailments trying to get his team out of the play-in tournament and into the playoff race.
 
He succeeded in that regard. The Raptors won 14 of their final 18 games and finished fifth in the Eastern Conference. But it came at a cost for VanVleet, who aggravated a lingering hip injury during the team’s first-round series against Philadelphia, ending his postseason a couple games early.
 
“You live and you learn but that’s just a life philosophy for me,” VanVleet said Wednesday, following a morning practice on the second day of training camp in Victoria, B.C. “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for this team and last year that meant playing through an injury during a crucial stretch of the year… I played hurt during that stretch, it’s not something that I need credit for or a pat on the back for, it’s a choice that I made and, in hindsight, it sucked the way it ended, but I can’t say that I wouldn’t do it again.”
 
Theoretically, the Raptors would like him to play fewer than the 37.9 minutes he averaged last season – second most in the league behind his own teammate, Pascal Siakam. Like the rest of us, VanVleet remains sceptical.
 
“We got better,” he said. “In theory, better team requires less from their top guys and that would be the hope. We’ll see. I’ll believe it when I see it, but all we care about is winning, whatever that takes.”
 
Toronto’s notable off-season additions came on the wing and in the frontcourt, so there still isn’t much depth behind VanVleet at the guard position. As last season went on, Nurse got more comfortable with Siakam or rookie Scottie Barnes initiating the offence when VanVleet was on the bench. Even when he was out there, those guys would often run the point and allow VanVleet to play off the ball, which made it easier to manage his workload while taking advantage of his strength as a spot-up shooter.
 
The continued growth of Siakam and Barnes as offensive creators would help Nurse do more of that this season. Getting consistent minutes and production from third-year point guard Malachi Flynn, who had a strong summer that appears to be carrying over into the early days of training camp, also couldn’t hurt.
 
But, like Lowry before him, VanVleet has taken the onus on himself. Taking better care of his body was a focus for him going into the off-season. He even picked Lowry’s brain and spoke to experts in the field in order to find a routine that made sense for him. After rehabbing his injury early in the summer, then changing his approach to strength and conditioning and tweaking his diet, VanVleet says he feels great going into the new season.
 
It’s worth noting that the Raptors never fully figured it out with Lowry. They continued to play him heavy minutes – the drop off was significant when he would come off the floor during most of his nine-year tenure – and he continued to play through a series of late-season injuries. Still, that he’s been able to maintain such a high level of play well into his 30s is a credit to him and the work that he’s put into maintaining his body.
 
VanVleet is hoping he’s able to say the same thing once he reaches the latter stages of his playing career.
 
“It’s a 12-month season now, year ‘round,” said a noticeably slimmer VanVleet, about to begin his seventh NBA campaign. “Hopefully I can stay on this regimen the rest of my career. “There’s always gonna be new changes and things you have to adjust and adapt to as you try to grow. I’ve had a hell of a run so far, so to continue to try to keep growing is going to be challenging every year but I’m up for it.”