Fred VanVleet was overlooked by Power 5 schools coming out of high school, and undrafted after an illustrious collegiate career at Wichita State. Now an NBA Champion who was tasked with the toughest challenge of all, checking Steph Curry in the NBA Finals, VanVleet is done flying under the radar.
Fred VanVleet’s father, Fred Manning, was shot and killed in 1999. The five-year-old VanVleet was tested tremendously at an age where most children’s biggest concern is what’s going on their Christmas list that year. But VanVleet was forced to endure. He was forced to keep going, forced to move forward.
Before VanVleet was harassing backcourt opponents for the Toronto Raptors, he was an under-recruited Chicago-area high school point guard. Ranked in the Rivals.com Top-150 in the 2012 class, he eventually landed at Wichita State University. VanVleet turned down offers from Colorado State, Drake (the university, not his twin), Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Kent State before electing to play for head coach Gregg Marshall. In a 2014 interview with The Chicago Tribune, VanVleet said “I wasn’t going to wait around and be someone’s second or third option. I was the first option at Wichita State.”
VanVleet excelled at the collegiate level under Marshall, propelling the Shockers to a 31-0 start in his sophomore season, taking home first-team honors in the Missouri Valley Conference and also winning MVC Player of the Year. He also earned third-team AP All-American honors in 2014. He would go on to achieve first-team MVC honors in the next two seasons and win the conference’s Player of the Year award again as a senior in 2016. The Shockers advanced to the NCAA Tournament in all four of his seasons with the program, making the Final Four in his freshman campaign and the Sweet Sixteen when he was a junior. VanVleet helped Marshall build Wichita State into a mid-major powerhouse, with the four-year run solidifying and stabilizing the program in the coming years.
When VanVleet went undrafted in 2016, he signed to play with the Raptors in the NBA Summer League. A couple of weeks later, he latched on with a (non-guaranteed) multi-year deal. After spending training camp with the Raptors, he made the 15-man roster despite it including three other point guards — Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright. During the 2016-17 season, he spent much of the season playing for Raptors 905, the G-League affiliate of the club, winning the league championship with head coach Jerry Stackhouse and Pascal Siakam. VanVleet and Siakam spent part of the season up with Toronto but went down to the G-League for a finals run.
While he only played 7.9 minutes per game as a rookie, VanVleet’s minutes spiked to 20 minutes per in his sophomore NBA season. With the jump in playing time, his true shooting percentage impressively went from 44.3 in his rookie year to 55.6 in year-two. While he was getting more minutes, he was still stuck behind incumbent stars Kyle Lowry and Demar Derozan, with Delon Wright still in the fold as well. Considering he went undrafted, being an efficient 20-minute-per-game player would have been considered overachieving by all accounts. But then again, so would getting All-American votes as a 6-foot-0 guard that was virtually ignored by all of the major programs in the country.
In that 2014 interview with The Chicago Tribune, VanVleet shared some of the mindset he carries with him: “Coming from where I come from and the experiences I had and where I could be, I’m humbled and blessed to be where I am…But at the same time, where I want to go and to try to get further in life, you can’t be satisfied. You have to have perspective on both sides.”
This approach has fueled VanVleet through adversity virtually since he could walk, and pushed him to newer heights every step along the journey.
This season, VanVleet posted career highs across the board. The third-year guard averaged 11 points and 4.8 assists per game, committing just 1.3 turnovers and 1.7 fouls per contest as well. He started 28 games after never drawing a start in the first two seasons of his career. In those 28 starts, he averaged 13.9 points, 5.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds across 32.4 minutes. His minutes shot up to 27.5 a night for the season as a whole, and he began to play more and more in crunch time for coach Nick Nurse. When the Raptors acquired Marc Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in February, Delon Wright was part of the package heading south, opening up even more minutes for the former Shocker heading into the postseason.
In the playoffs, VanVleet would take his biggest steps yet as a basketball player. After making only one 3-pointer (1-for-14 for the series) and failing to score more than five points in any game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals vs. the Philadelphia 76ers, he became one of the biggest reasons Toronto was able to knock off the Milwaukee Bucks to get to the NBA Finals. He made 14-of-17 3-point attempts (a ridiculous 82.3 percent) across Games 4, 5, and 6 after shooting only 2-for-11 from range in the first three games of the series.
And yet still, there would be higher peaks to climb for VanVleet. He was tasked with guarding Steph Curry pretty much every second he was deployed by Nick Nurse in the NBA Finals. Curry got his numbers, as he always does, but VanVleet made him work as hard as anyone ever has throughout the two-time MVP’s career. Not only did VanVleet help slow down one of the best players the Finals have ever seen, but he also made 16-of-40 3-point attempts (40 percent) and averaged 14 points across the six-game series, nailing huge shots down the stretch in the deciding final game. He got to the line and made three free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt by Shaun Livingston with 5:39 to play in the fourth, then nailed a 3-pointer to put Toronto up three with 3:46 remaining. VanVleet played 34 minutes in Game 6, scoring 22 points and nailing five 3s.
“Basketball was always the common denominator,” VanVleet’s mother Susan told The Chicago Tribune back in 2014.
Basketball has been more than a game to VanVleet for a long time, and it’s great to see the game love him back. Despite the horrific injuries suffered by Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson, the silver lining of this Finals is stories such as this one. The Raptors’ roster is full of guys like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Guys that put in the work, that were always in the playoffs, but never got over the hump on the quest to an NBA championship. Well, they finally did it, and it could not have happened without the kid from Rockford, IL.