June 23, 2016 was the night of the NBA draft, when Fred VanVleet was coming off his senior year at Wichita State. VanVleet was named the Missouri Valley Conference’s player of the year twice, and his team had made four straight appearances in March Madness, including a run to the Final Four in his freshman season. His team went 9-4 in the tournament during his tenure there.
VanVleet was a huge part of his school’s turnaround — Wichita State had won just eight total tournament games before his arrival. Still, the ever-present criticisms surrounded VanVleet that night, and during the weeks and months that led up to it: too slow, too short, not a good enough shooter, not meticulously sculpted. Despite all of his accolades, VanVleet was not going to be a first-round pick. Regardless, he rented out a bar in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, and hosted a draft party.
The dream of any NBA player looking to get drafted is to hear his name called by the commissioner, to hug his family and friends, to slip on his new team’s hat and emerge from the green room in a fresh suit. Failing that, maybe the deputy commissioner would call his name in the second round. VanVleet and his team had other plans, though.
The viewers' interest in that establishment ran counter to nearly everyone watching on ESPN: the first round was practically the pre-movie credits; the second round was the evening's feature. As it went on, there was at least one team — maybe more — that wanted to draft VanVleet. He knew this scenario was a possibility. Unless a team that presented a solid opportunity for VanVleet to make an impact in the NBA wanted to choose him, VanVleet and his representation were going to discourage those teams from taking him, even though the decision ultimately belonged to the team. VanVleet preferred to become an undrafted free agent, controlling his ultimate destination. At least that was the plan before draft night.
“I was watching some clips the other day that I didn’t even remember because I got drunk on draft night,” VanVleet said in a wide-ranging interview earlier this week. “But (VanVleet’s agent, Christian Dawkins) said those words to me. There were a couple of teams that were interested. He talked me out of (taking a second-round pick). I’m at a draft party with like 100 of my family and friends and I’m sitting there and two fucking hours have gone by and everybody’s sitting around. I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get my name called.’ People don’t understand: I know it’s not in my best interest to get picked, but I’m telling him, ‘Man, let’s just get picked.’ He said, ‘Nah, don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Just bet on yourself.’ He said that to me.”
Years earlier, Doc Cornell’s best laid plans were being undone by a local track meet. The AAU team he coached, Rockford-based PrymeTyme, had a tournament one weekend, and several of his players had committed to sprinting and leaping instead of shooting and dribbling, at least to start the weekend. Undermanned, PrymeTyme was going to have to put together a good record on Friday, the opening day of the tournament, to advance to the Saturday games.
PrymeTyme had a so-so Friday, and they were going to have to beat the vaunted Wisconsin Blizzard that night to advance forward. PrymeTyme was a 14-and-under team, while the Blizzard had some 15-year-olds. Years later, Cornell does not remember all of the players on his roster — he does recall a 5-foot-10 centre named Jason. (As for the last name: shrug.) It was a back-and-forth game, and Cornell’s team was trailing by two in the final seconds. They had to foul. First shot: clank. Second shot: clank, again.
“Jason actually happened to do a great box-out, grabbed the rebound,” Cornell said.
“It looks like he’s about to shoot it,” said VanVleet, who was on the court that day. “I’m trying to get his attention, like, ‘Gimme the fucking ball.’”
“Fred (gets the ball) at the top of the key from the other three-point line,” Cornell continued. “He shoots a three and just puts his hands up in the air. It goes in from the other three-point line, all net. He was like, ‘I told y’all we wasn’t going home tonight.’ And I got on the phone and called his mother. I told her for the first time I was nervous that we were going to lose. I said, ‘He had ice water in his veins. He said we were going to win the game. He took the shot. He made it from the other three-point line.’ I was giving off all this static. I was like, ‘He’s going to the league.’ I was like, ‘That was incredible. He’s going to the NBA. I don’t care what nobody says: He’s going to the league.’”
Over the years, countless scouts and talent evaluators have doubted Cornell’s perhaps-overheated proclamation. VanVleet has repeatedly proved them wrong, landing a training-camp invitation as an undrafted free agent with the Raptors and ultimately making the roster last year. This year, VanVleet has taken it a step further.
The 24-year-old is an integral part of the Raptors’ dazzling second unit, a boy band of slept-on young talent. (In case you are wondering: Jakob Poeltl is the reliable one, Delon Wright is the shy one, Pascal Siakam is the fun one with seemingly limitless potential and VanVleet is the serious one. A bad boy is still needed, although VanVleet has two technical fouls this year. Maybe OG Anunoby can take over VanVleet’s serious role. This needs to be workshopped.) His box-score statistics are fine enough: 8.1 points and 3.1 assists per game, averaging more than 19 minutes per game. Dig a little deeper, and his indispensability becomes undeniable. He is a 41.6 per cent three-point shooter. He dishes out 3.22 assists for every turnover, 10th in the league among players who play at least 15 minutes per game and have played in at least 30 contests. Also, the Raptors allow just 97.5 points per 100 possessions when he is on the floor. VanVleet plays the majority of minutes against backups, so it is not totally surprising that his defensive rating is so sterling. It cannot be credited to just VanVleet.
It is not purely coincidence, either.
“It’s unbelievable how underrated as a defender he was coming out (of college),” said Dan Tolzman, assistant general manager and vice-president of player personnel for the Raptors. “I never saw a game where he didn’t get up in somebody and just disrupt their game and make it miserable for them.”
“I think he’s probably a pain in the ass to other NBA guards,” added Bryan Ott, VanVleet’s high school coach.
VanVleet is uncomfortable lending details to the narrative of hard-done-by Rockford, a town with the familiar intertwined epidemics of poverty, racism and violence. When asked about the perception of the city, he encourages people to look up the statistics. The damning reports are not hard to find. In 2010, Rockford was listed by the FBI as the ninth-most dangerous city to live in the United States. The financial website 24/7 Wall Street listed Rockford as the 16th-worst city to live in the country, citing, among other things, that 22.4 per cent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Cornell recalled having to do backflips to find his mostly black AAU team court time, while the white teams had no such trouble.
VanVleet and his family were victims of their surroundings. Fred was just five when his father was murdered, shot twice in another man’s apartment. After a period of living with her parents, VanVleet’s mother, Susan, eventually entered a relationship with a Rockford police detective, Joe Danforth. That was good in that it gave VanVleet some stability. It was not a cure-all, though. Danforth and his tough-love, toe-the-line approach was probably positive for VanVleet in the long run, but it was surely difficult to handle at the moment. (Danforth also might not be the best basketball evaluator. He elected to coach Fred’s older brother’s AAU team, leaving his cousin, Cornell, to lead Fred’s younger team. Guess which one had more success over time.) Beyond that, no one person was going to be able to make up for the loss of his father, and no one person was going to instil a sense of belonging in VanVleet.
“I remember growing up, being in middle school, and when we’d talk about, ‘Where you from? Where you from?’ Everybody would say Chicago or whatever,” VanVleet said. “I think I said I was from Memphis one time, because I had family in Memphis. Kids, growing up, there was just no pride from where you were from, and that can lead to a lot of different things. It’s hard to treat a place with respect if you don’t love it.”
Still, VanVleet wanted to play in, and for, Rockford. He spent time with an AAU team in Naperville, a Chicago suburb, and worked with ex-Raptor and Bull Antonio Davis in the summers, but the travelling wasn’t for him. He just felt more at home in Rockford, even if — or maybe because — the town had an inferiority complex in relation to Chicago. Eventually, Cornell put together PrymeTyme, highlighted by VanVleet and Marcus Posley, who played in the G League and now plays professionally in Greece.
In a school setting, VanVleet’s prodigious talent was obvious — but that worked against him, too. VanVleet’s ball-handling skills were good enough to have him play a couple of years above his age, with his brother, but not good enough to earn his coach’s trust. Ott, his eventual high-school coach at Auburn High School, remembered watching VanVleet as a fifth grader who could dribble his way out of traps, but was physically overmatched on the defensive end. VanVleet felt at the time he deserved a role on the team. Instead he sat, watched, stewed and learned. Ultimately, VanVleet said, it was not unlike his rookie season in the NBA.
Even when he got to Auburn, VanVleet did not immediately morph into a wunderkind saviour. He was a freshman playing on the sophomore team. Again, Ott thought he was too small to handle guarding kids who were 17 and 18. It was not until two seniors were declared ineligible that VanVleet got his chance with the varsity team.
“We’re in a regional championship game in the post-season, and we’ve got a team on the ropes,” Ott said. “They start trapping us a little bit and I put Fred out there to have an all-guard lineup. And here’s this freshman, just cool as a cucumber, playing against a veteran team that was favoured to beat us by a little. We’re ahead of them and they’re trying to trap us, and he is just untrappable.
“There’s nobody other than God almighty who taught him how to see things the way he sees them. Whatever his level of athleticism was relative to older kids who were bigger and stronger and faster at the time, his ability to see stuff before it develops is unparalleled. I’ve never had a player who the game was so slow for. The reason his passes are always right on time is he just knows what’s happening next.”
VanVleet finished his high school career as the all-time leading scorer in the Rockford Public School system. According to Cornell, VanVleet’s AAU team had a record of better than 160 wins and just 13 losses when he was in the lineup. A hesitant, average shooter ended up in the Illinois state three-point competition — funky spin and all.
And still, VanVleet was ignored by the country’s most accomplished basketball programs, appearing destined for Kent State until Wichita State made a late charge. (According to Yahoo Sports, VanVleet and Danforth both received money from Andy Miller’s ASM Sports agency, relating to his time spent at Wichita State. Dawkins, VanVleet's agent, is one of 10 men the FBI has indicted in the comprehensive scandal that had the agency directing clients to certain schools and giving athletes impermissible benefits.)
“(In high school and AAU), we were out here kicking everybody’s ass, and there are guys who are getting all these offers and going to these big schools,” VanVleet said. “I was like, ‘These dudes suck. They really are not good basketball players.’
“With a guy who’s really good, they’ll try to find a reason why they can’t be something, more than focusing on what he’s good at. If I have a seven-foot wingspan, you don’t care if I can’t shoot. You’re gonna focus on that seven-foot wingspan. But if I have a good basketball IQ, and I can shoot it and I can run a team and I win, that doesn’t matter as much. That’s the frustrating part. Are we talking about basketball, or am I going to line guys up and measure them and do a monkey test in the field, and (are scouts going to) run guys and watch them jump, see how big their hands are? I’m playing basketball. There’s a reason I didn’t play football. That’s what they do at the combine. You still have to go play the game. Basketball is a skill game.”
What Lowry is to the Raptors as a whole, VanVleet is to the Raptors’ next wave of players. Players who constantly feel underappreciated generally have excellent work ethic, and that’s the bedrock on which the Raptors are built. However — and Lowry at various points of his career, especially early on, is an example of this — having something to prove can often get in the way of team goals. When asked about his goals, VanVleet only mentioned winning a championship. VanVleet, though, is going to become a restricted free agent after the year.
“He’s got that makeup — I can prove people wrong still by doing it the right way and still doing it within the team concept,” Tolzman said. “The more success the team has, the more success I’ll have. He’s the ultimate spokesman for that kind of mental understanding.
“His whole bet on yourself thing, it sums it up. He’s out here to show people they missed something. We get to reap the benefits of it.”
It is tough to predict how much money VanVleet will earn in the off-season. We have about a decade’s worth of evidence that talent evaluators have undervalued VanVleet’s worth, and there will not be a ton of league-wide cap space as revenues are levelling off following the cap spike of 2016. On the other hand, Casey cannot help but use VanVleet in big situations, which means he is one of the Raptors role players most likely to have a marquee playoff moment. The most any team can offer VanVleet in free agency is the mid-level exception, due to the collective bargaining agreement’s “Gilbert Arenas provision,” but even that offer would put the cap-strapped Raptors in a very tough position. As it stands now before any move is made, the Raptors are projected to exceed the league’s luxury-tax threshold, most recently estimated at $123-million. The maximum-allowable annual salary for VanVleet will likely start around $8.6-million, which is a lot, although not an unprecedented amount, for a team to pay a backup point guard. It is hard to envision a team seeing VanVleet as a starter, but it would take just one offer from one team to put the Raptors in a bind.
Clearly, VanVleet is not wired to stop pushing at “meaningful role player on a good team” — that indefatigable attitude is what makes VanVleet who he is. However, you get the sense that after being doubted for the same reasons over and over again, he has recognized that he seems to come out ahead more often than not.
Meanwhile, VanVleet said he wants to bring some hometown pride to Rockford, the town he was embarrassed to call home as a kid. Over the all-star break, Auburn retired VanVleet’s number. “We’re a small, gritty city of 150,000 in Rockford,” Ott said. “You have some real tough players and kids from here, for sure. But this is the first guy who has done any of the things that Fred has done.”
At the end of January, VanVleet also became a father for the first time. After last week’s loss to Milwaukee, VanVleet brought his daughter, Sanaa, back into the team’s locker room, showing her off to Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and even a few reporters.
“It’s awesome. It’s the most beautiful thing that’s happened to me in my life,” VanVleet said. “I’ve been through a lot of shit, been through a lot of stuff that most people shouldn’t see. This is a thing that just makes life full. I lost my dad when I was five. To be a dad to her, to hold her in my arms, it’s just giving me chills just to say it out loud. It’s a fulfilling thing. It makes you whole. It doesn’t solve all your problems. But no matter what’s going on, I can go home and look in her eyes and I’ll feel fine for that split second. It’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. She’s kicking my ass this week.”
It is a loss VanVleet takes gladly. When VanVleet bets on himself, after all, he tends to win.