On Tuesday night, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet broke Toronto’s franchise record for points in a game by scoring a career-high 54 points in a single game. In the process of doing so, he passed some other local legends — namely DeMar DeRozan 52-point New Year’s Day game from 2018, along with Terrence Ross and Vince Carter’s 51-point explosions prior.
That’s right, the kid from Rockford, Illinois proved once again that betting on yourself can earn great respect in the long run. But it didn’t start out that way. The road to success was a long and winding one for VanVleet.
VanVleet played four seasons at Wichita State averaging 10.2 points, 4.5 assists and 102 starts. The numbers don’t look that impressive but by the end of his college career, VanVleet was ranked first all-time in school history for assists (637), steals (225) and assists-to-turnover ratio (3.08). As a result, he became an integral part to the team’s overall success, guiding Wichita State to some surprising March Madness success. In his way, VanVleet helped put Wichita State on the map as a basketball school going forward.
When VanVleet decided to enter the 2016 NBA Draft he was confident he’d be selected in the first round. So confident in fact, that he threw a big party inviting friends and family to gather in preparation of the big moment he’d finally hear his name called.
Except that moment never came. VanVleet was passed over in the first round.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, but my story don’t end here,” VanVleet told the crowd. “It’s just the beginning. It wouldn’t really make sense for myself if I did get picked. I’ve been against the odds my whole life and it’s not going to stop now.”
It was that moment when VanVleet decided to take control of his future. In response to the first round passes, he chose to turn down every offer that came in the second round, officially earning the descriptor “undrafted player.” VanVleet’s choice was a gamble that would prove to pay off big in the long run.
With VanVleet’s NBA dreams up in the air, the Raptors came calling. They worked out a deal with Fred to add him to their 2016 NBA Summer League team in Las Vegas. While Toronto’s squad had other player with more pedigree — Delon Wright, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam among them — VanVleet began to establish his name as a valuable and reliable backup for the squad. While it didn’t seem so at the time, he was positioning himself to earn more in four years than most first-round draft picks.
After Summer League, VanVleet graduated to a two-year deal with the Raptors. He was still down the list on Toronto’s depth chart and spent most of the 2016-17 season in the G League with the Raptors 905. VanVleet proved he had the ability to run a team and consistently pull up in the clutch. This went on right into the 2017 G League Finals, in which VanVleet averaged 22 points and 11.5 assists. Paired with his future Raptors teammate Siakam, Fred’s presence and leadership helped the 905 to a G League championship.
In all, VanVleet proved he was ready for the NBA, becoming a key part of the Raptors’ rotation in 2017-18. By 2019, with the Raptors on the way to the NBA Finals and a title, there was VanVleet again. After a quiet two rounds, VanVleet came through in the clutch against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals. He then went on to set the record for most three-point field goals made off the bench in the NBA Finals against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. When the lights were shining brighest, VanVleet was there to play his part on offense and defense for Toronto, spending six games slowing league MVP Steph Curry around as the key figure in the Raptors’ box-and-1 defense.
Once VanVleet became a champion, he also officially became one of the most sought after free agent on the market. In 2019-20, in the second year of his two-year $18 million deal, VanVleet became a full-time starter with the Raptors. Once again he filled into his new position well. And despite other suitors emerging, Toronto re-signed VanVleet to the biggest contract for an undrafted free agent in NBA history: four years, $85 million.
While this season has been a slow start for the Raptors, as they endure a year-long road trip playing in Tampa, VanVleet continues to be the team’s most consistent player. Now as he approaches his 27th birthday in his fifth year in the league, VanVleet is looking for his next challenge. Having already won a G League and NBA championship, could he become an NBA All-Star next? Are there more records for him to break? What could be next?
With his “bet on yourself” mantra, VanVleet’s already storied career proves he was very much right to make the gamble. And Fred’s continued excellence makes it hard — or downright foolish — to bet against him.