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Can Undrafted Ace VanVleet
Guide the Raptors to Eastern Conference Glory?

Even at this early juncture of the campaign, the Toronto Raptors’ 2021 looked set to be a complete washout.

Sitting at 8-12, the Canadians were in danger of being cut adrift in the Atlantic Division, and while a spot in the Play-in Tournament was still in the offing the signs were not great. Then along came Fred VanVleet to change the face of the Raptors’ season. The 26-year-old had made history before a pass had even been thrown in the 2021 campaign, after having signed an $85 million, four-year deal with Toronto despite going undrafted.

He lived up to that burgeoning reputation on a crazy night at the Orlando Magic, where he was powered by the ultimate hot hand. VanVleet made eleven three-pointers and netted 54 points in total, a franchise record, as the Raptors got their Championship aspirations back on track. VanVleet himself called it a ‘special night’, but he was quick to play down his achievements and ensure that concentration was not lost. “I'll enjoy all the love for a couple hours and get ready for the next one,” he said, suggesting that everybody at Toronto has very much got their eye on the prize right now.

There’s a long way to go before Nick Nurse’s men can force their way back into the reckoning for postseason honors. But with VanVleet producing world-class shooting like that, it’s not beyond the pale that the Raptors will climb the outright odds in the NBA betting on bet365. In the weeks ahead, the +2500 on them to win the Eastern Conference might just shorten considerably.

Getting Back to Basics

There’s no doubt that the Raptors have gone backwards this season, and markedly so given how close they were to the Eastern Conference finals just a matter of months ago. Losing Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol during free agency didn’t exactly help. Additionally, the growing pains for new faces like Aron Baynes confirm that even in elite-level sport it takes time for players to settle into a new strategic system.

But the only way is up. VanVleet has the hot hand, Pascal Siakam can only get better from here and OG Anunoby is showing signs that he is a defensive boss of the highest order. Even guys like Chris Boucher have displayed occasional glimpses to suggest that there’s plenty of life left in this Raptors season yet.

More is needed from stars like Kyle Lowry, who will be disappointed with his contributions so far, but he, like Siakam, has plenty of upside and improvement seems inevitable. Ranking ninth in the NBA for turnovers, fourteenth for points scored, and 27th for offensive rebounds, it’s pretty clear that Toronto isn’t winning enough ball around the opposition’s net. Even when they do win it back, they’re not doing enough with it.

There are issues in defense as well, but Nurse will be hoping he can iron those out in due course as he tinkers with his roster to find a consistent winning formula. If his underperforming stars can find their best, and VanVleet can continue on his heater, suddenly the Raptors look a very different proposition indeed.