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Player Review: Fred VanVleet’s resilient journey to Raptors stardom

Fred VanVleet is the present and future of this Raptors franchise. His 2018-19 season will live on Toronto lore.

NBA: Finals-Toronto Raptors at Golden State Warriors Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Is there any player in the NBA that embodies his franchise more than Fred VanVleet? From his early career struggles to prove himself, to his newly minted NBA Finals heroism, to his increasingly bright future, VanVleet couldn’t be a more perfect representation of the only NBA franchise he’s played for, the Toronto Raptors.

The Early Years: Earning Respect

You can’t do a season review of FVV without understanding his past and how it’s shaped him. Despite being an All-State first team selection while playing for Auburn High School in his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, VanVleet was only being recruited by mid-major schools. After leading his high school to their first Illinois High School Association final four in almost 30 years, VanVleet turned down offers to higher profile AAU teams and stuck with his local Rockford squad. A proven winner throughout his high school career, VanVleet only received scholarship offers from Kent State, Northern Illinois, and, his eventual choice, Wichita State. Gregg Marshall, head coach of the Shockers, summed up FVV perfectly, “The rap was he wasn’t quick enough and he wasn’t fast enough and he couldn’t jump and he couldn’t shoot, but all he did was win.”

At Wichita State, the winning continued. In his freshman year, VanVleet quickly proved his worth, winning a starting role from the incumbent senior, Malcolm Armstead. During the NCAA tournament, he put the Shockers on the map, leading Wichita State to upsets over #1-seed, Gonzaga, and basketball powerhouse, Ohio State, en route to the school’s second ever trip to the Final Four. His sophomore season was even better, leading the Shockers to the first 31-0 regular season in NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball history, while picking up the MVC player of the year award. By the time his senior season wrapped up, Fred VanVleet had amassed AP Honorable mention All-American three times, First-team All-MVC three times, and MVC Player of the Year twice.

Bet On Yourself

After all that winning, what did it earn him? A humbling experience at his own Draft Night party and an invitation to the Toronto Raptors Summer League team.

What often gets forgotten about VanVleet is that he turned down two offers to be drafted during the second round! Those teams were offering an annual salary of $20,000 to spend two years in the NBA D-League (now G League). Instead, VanVleet bet on himself, signed with the Raptors, and the rest is history.

Oh what a history that’s become for VanVleet and the Raptors. In his rookie season, FVV, along with Pascal Siakam, led the Raptors 905 to their first G League championship. In his sophomore season, he continued his swift rise to prominence by leading the NBA’s best bench unit and being named a finalist for the Sixth Man of the Year award. VanVleet headed into the offseason as a restricted free agent and, with all the success he had already achieved in his first two seasons, no one would blame him if he left for a starter role with another team. (Luckily, Phoenix couldn’t get any deal done). Just as he stayed true to his Rockford AAU team and remained loyal to Wichita State, FVV chose loyalty to the team that believed in him, signing a short-term deal to stay in Toronto.

VanVleet has repaid that trust many times over throughout this season. Of course, we’ll all think of his various shot-clock beating, Warrior soul-sucking, no-no-no-no-YES three-pointers. FVV’s impact stretches far beyond his highlight reel shots. He’s been a steadying force on offense and a pest on defense. The Bench Mob that rated first in net rating among all bench units a season ago couldn’t replicate it’s success this season. Blame it on regression. Blame it on Siakam’s ascension to the starting lineup. Blame it on injuries or roster turnover. But don’t blame VanVleet. His numbers have increased across the board and, if anything, his leadership kept the bench unit afloat. VanVleet started 28 games this season, stepping in whenever Kyle Lowry or Kawhi Leonard were absent, and was a staple of Nick Nurse’s closing units.

During the playoffs, his resiliency would be tested again. After scoring 14 points in the first game of the playoffs, Fred did not score in double figures for the next 14 games! The Magic, Sixers, and Bucks overwhelmed VanVleet with larger guards, forcing him to over-dribble or take difficult shots. It got so bad, Raptors fans went from asking, “What’s wrong with Fred?”, to “Why isn’t Jeremy Lin playing?”

Fred VanVleet Junior (and Senior) is Born

Then it happened. Fred VanVleet Junior was born. The birth of his second child, coincidentally or not, caused a re-birth for Fred VanVleet Senior. He’d go on to drain 14(!!) of 17 three-point attempts over the final three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, including seven triples in the momentum-swinging Game 5 road win. FVV carried that confidence into the NBA Finals where his shooting (multiple threes in five of six games, including five triples in the clincher) and defense (Steph Stopper!!) will live in Raptors lore forever.

From undrafted to earning an NBA Finals MVP vote (Kawhi received the other 10), VanVleet has been the gift that keeps on giving. His star has never looked brighter and so is his future with Toronto.

Remember that short-term deal he signed? At $18 million over two years, the contract was probably less than what he could’ve fetched in the market, and the contract length keeps Toronto’s books clean when it expires (only Norman Powell is under contract beyond next season). He’s positioned himself as the Raptors’ point guard of the future with tools to match or exceed what Kyle Lowry has provided. It doesn’t hurt that he’s getting paid $25 million less next season and is eight years younger than the Raptors legend.

The Raptors organization had its fair share of early year struggles. Whether it was sub-.500 seasons in eight of the first 11 years, or star players wanting no part in playing north of the border, it always felt like Toronto was the ugly step-child of the NBA. With Masai Ujiri at the helm, the executive team bet on themselves, trading away the face of the franchise for a superstar this franchise has never had. Eleven months later, Toronto sits on top of the basketball world, as NBA Champions and early favourites to repeat next season.

Fred VanVleet has played the role of ugly step-child his whole career. Now he and the Raptors have never looked better — both now and in the future. Shocking, ain’t it?