On February 12, 2022, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in the rough against the Denver Nuggets. Down four points with fewer than 30 seconds left, the Raptors needed a miracle. So they turned to their All Star and miracle maker, Fred VanVleet.
He fired his jumper so high that the cameraman had to zoom out to keep the arc of the ball within frame. VanVleet may be the Raptors’ starting point guard, but he’s far from tied to that position. Point guards traditionally handle the ball and create for others. So with the game on the line against Denver, the Raptors of course took the ball out of his hands and asked the smallest player on the court to hurl his body against a giant to create space for others. The result was three points, as VanVleet himself was rewarded for his selflessness. The play call worked so well that the Raptors ran the same play on the very next possession, again creating an open jumper for VanVleet after the Nuggets doubled Pascal Siakam. He missed the shot, but good process doesn’t always yield good results. It turns out, the Raptors have been trusting VanVleet as a screener rather than a ball-handler quite a bit all season.
According to PBP Stats, the Raptors have already used VanVleet as a screener in a near-identical situation. Against the Brooklyn Nets on December 14, the Raptors found themselves down four points with 10 seconds remaining. VanVleet inbounded the ball to and then immediately set a screen for Gary Trent jr. before scampering into space and hitting a deep triple. His screening-and-running represents the ace-in-the-sleeve pot-stealer for the Raptors; they don’t want to use it unless they have to.
There are a variety of benefits. Perhaps most importantly — and this might be burying the lede here — VanVleet has been the best shooter off the catch in the NBA this season. He leads the NBA in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage among those with three or more attempts a game. He’s far from a bad pull-up shooter, but getting VanVleet off the ball weaponizes his greatest skill, catch-and-shoot shooting — which is just about the best way any offensive possession can end across the league. That’s the benefit. Unlocking it, turning VanVleet’s jumper into the endpoint of an individual offensive possession, is catalyzed by using VanVleet as a screener.
VanVleet travels the furthest distance per game of any player in the game, and he’s near the top in average speed, too. When VanVleet is near the ball as a screener, his defender has an impossible task. He has to help defend the ball-handler, usually Pascal Siakam, Toronto’s best driving threat. But the defender also has to be prepared to run with VanVleet as he jets off into open space in any direction. VanVleet’s gravity off the ball and Siakam’s gravity with it serve to draw and quarter defenders, frequently buying VanVleet small beats of time to do what he does best.
When the pass does get to him, VanVleet has one of the fastest releases in the game and has range far, far beyond the three-point line, so his diminutive height doesn’t impact him in the least. Most players are limited to shooting within a thin strip immediately behind the three-point line — and only then if they’re open. VanVleet has a wide strip of available real estate, and he doesn’t really need much space at all to be open.
Getting VanVleet a jumper may be the optimal result of VanVleet’s screening, but it isn’t the only possible benefit. He is a master ghoster of screens, whiffing and darting into space, but he disguises that curveball with a real heater; he also hits people, freeing up his teammates for their own scoring. Not a lot of guards make real contact on their screens, but VanVleet seems to relish that physicality. There are real benefits to that.
If defenses try to short circuit the action, Toronto usually plays three bruising wings alongside VanVleet, all of whom are able to beat a switch with relative ease. But VanVleet doesn’t stop moving after he gives up the ball, cutting across the court to draw defenders’ eyes to further create scoring space for his teammates.
The numbers reflect VanVleet’s screening prowess. Even though the Raptors save VanVleet’s screening as a late-game cheat code, he’s still tied first among point guards in possessions per game used as a screener. Perhaps more importantly, he’s second among point guards in efficiency, scoring a ridiculous 1.39 points per possessions when he ends pick and rolls as a screener. And he’s sixth among guards in screen assist points per game.
Even though the Raptors often go entire games without using VanVleet as a screener — largely because they don’t need to unveil their secret weapon — he has still put distance between himself and other point guards in that respect. It’s not hyperbolic to say that VanVleet has emerged this season as the premier point guard screener in the NBA.
It’s not normal to use your star point guard — VanVleet — as a big and your star big — Siakam — as a point guard. The Golden State Warriors popularized that approach with Steph Curry as a screener, and they reinvented NBA offense. The Raptors aren’t reinventing the league quite yet, but they are zigging when everyone else zags. That’s sort of what the team has to do. Toronto hasn’t had a tier-one superstar closer since Kawhi Leonard went to Los Angeles, and it plays its starters more than any other team — yet starts three power forwards and no centers. The team is unique. So it has to find unique advantages. Getting VanVleet off the ball does just that.
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