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Player Preview 2017-18: Fred VanVleet, the Underdog Shocker

As VanVleet enters his second season with Toronto, is he primed to become a rotation regular?

NBA: Preseason-Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors
Fred VanVleet drives to the basket against the Detroit Pistons
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Fred VanVleet has always preferred to go about his business quietly.

As reported by Bleacher Report back in 2014, while most fifth graders in Rockford, Illinois were deep asleep, ten-year-old Fred VanVleet — draped by a 30-pound weighted vest — was running full-court scrimmages against his older brother. His day would start at 5:30 A.M, roughly three hours before meeting his classmates for school. It was a rigorous schedule, but one that VanVleet’s caregiver — Joe Danforth — insisted was necessary. He would tell Fred, “You're not going to be average. Anyone can be average. You’re going to be somebody.”

VanVleet’s Biological father was killed in a drug deal when Fred was just five. Danforth insisted Fred avoid a similar fate. The Rockford Police Department officer was often called crazy for his treatment of VanVleet, but Danforth knew that his tough love would prepare Fred for any curveball life could throw at him. He has been crushing curveballs ever since.

The sub six-foot VanVleet was not heavily recruited out of high school. In fact, the only Division I scholarship offer he received was from the school based out of Wichita, Kansas. He would lead the Shockers to four-straight NCAA Tournament appearances, and become Wichita State’s all-time leader in both assists and steals. After going undrafted, VanVleet earned himself a contract from the Toronto Raptors last season with an impressive Summer League showing. He performed well in limited minutes with the big club, and led the Raptors 905 to their first D-League championship with 28 points in the deciding game.

And now finally, Fred VanVleet is ready to make his debut in the limelight.

Value to the Raptors

As a fan first, VanVleet’s leadership, basketball IQ, and tenaciousness remind me of another current Raptor. Apparently I’m not the only one who has drawn the comparison. “I think Fred is a little bit smaller than me, but he has the opportunity to be that type of player,” Lowry said of VanVleet on media day. “I think Fred was better than me at this point of his career.”

VanVleet’s motor, along with his ability to hit the three-ball — of heightened importance on this Raptors squad — make him a valuable commodity in Toronto. Given the way Dwane Casey has used his point guards in the past, Freddy V can expect to see the court for stretches with both Delon Wright and DeMar DeRozan, ensuring Toronto has a floor spacer in the backcourt at all times. His court vision and ability to quarterback an offence will make it difficult for coach Casey to keep him from entering the rotation as a regular.

Surrounding Concerns

VanVleet is still unproven at the NBA level. Fred averaged under three points and one assist per game, in largely garbage-time minutes last season as the Raptors fourth-string point guard. Despite his competence leading a squad at both the NCAA and D-League (now G-League) levels, the NBA can often present a very different challenge, especially on the defensive end.

VanVleet’s size and athleticism may be his Achilles heel this season. At 5’11, he relies far too heavily on less-than-spectacular athleticism to make up for a lack of height. His body has never seemed to limit him on the offensive end, but steals aside, his defensive capabilities — or lack thereof — will see him lose minutes situationally to Delon Wright.

The Verdict

VanVleet has never been one to worry about what writers like myself have to say. He prefers to surprise his critics with his performance on the hardwood. In order to prepare for the upcoming season — a season he hopes he will earn consistent minutes in — he has been practicing against Kyle Lowry. “Being the competitors that we are, we’ve been coming in and competing against each other every day,” VanVleet told Sportsnet’s Michael Grange. “But to have that at stake makes it more enthusiastic, I’ll just say that.”

VanVleet may not be the tallest, jump the highest, or run the fastest. He might not be the best ball handler, or the best on-ball defender; but if one thing is for certain, it’s that F.V.V. will outwork you. What VanVleet lacks physically, he more than makes up for with heart; an intangible that is impossible to teach.

You can take the kid out of Wichita State, but Fred VanVleet is bound to be a Shocker for the Raptors this season.