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2023 NBA Las Vegas Summer League - Golden State Warriors v Toronto Raptors

Replacing Fred: Who are we betting on now?

A quartet of two-way and Exhibit-10 players are hoping to fill the void vacated by VanVleet

Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The departure of Fred VanVleet has many implications for a Toronto Raptors squad that’s currently in flux.

Obviously, questions like, “Who is the starting point guard”, and “Where will the Raptors find shooting,” will be top-of-mind as the team prepares for the 2023-24 season. After Kyle Lowry left for Miami two seasons ago, VanVleet took over as the vocal leader in the locker room and the floor general on the court. It’s still not clear who will take over those roles, but the success (or failure) of next season hinges on how new Head Coach, Darko Rajakovic, fares in his new role.

Fred was (and still is) the poster boy for undrafted, overlooked players hoping to prove their worth on the grandest stage. Has Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster possibly brought in VanVleet’s successor as Toronto’s next “bet on yourself” king?

Marquis Nowell is an undrafted, undersized point guard with proven ability at the college level. Javon Freeman-Liberty is a Chicago native who played high school, college, and even the G-League basketball in Illinois. Mouhamadou Gueye took an unconventional route to land a contract with the Raptors. Kevin Obanor was a short, chubby kid who was cut from his eighth-grade basketball team.

4 players fighting to make the roster. 4 stories of men overcoming long odds.

Let’s start with the two players who have a better chance of following VanVleet’s path to success since they’re currently on two-way contracts: Marquis Nowell and Javon Freeman-Liberty.

He’s not short, he’s just concentrated awesome

Comparing Nowell to VanVleet is the lowest of low-hanging fruit. They’re both under 6’0 (Yes, I know Fred’s listed at 6’0, but trust me. I’m 5’10 and have walked by him countless times in the Scotiabank Arena hallways — he’s not 6’0). They were both undrafted point guards who signed with the Raptors. They were both First Team All-Conference in their senior years of college. Seemingly the only reason they weren’t drafted was because of their height. The chips on their respective shoulders are as big as the diminutive guards themselves.

While Fred didn’t receive any scholarship offers from any of the Big 5 conferences, Marquis didn’t receive any Division 1 scholarships, period! After a couple of seasons at Little Rock, Nowell’s star really started to shine at Kansas State. This past year, Nowell made the Big 12 All-Defensive team, First Team All-Big 12, Third Team All-American, and was awarded the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard. Yet, with all of those accomplishments, Nowell will be best remembered for his standout performance during March Madness. The Wildcats’ unprecedented run to the Elite Eight was only possible due to Nowell’s heroic efforts, most notably, his 19-assist performance — an NCAA Tournament single-game record — in Kansas State’s Sweet 16 victory over Michigan State.

He’s a Chicagoan ‘til Chicago ends. ’Til he blow like Chicago winds.

Imagine if Dalano Banton played out his high school career at Central Toronto Academy, then followed that up with some time owning the court for York University. Now imagine Banton impresses in his draft workout — not well enough to be drafted, but well enough to get signed by his hometown team, Toronto Raptors. Banton isn’t ready for the NBA, so he plays his first professional season with the 905. After a solid season in the G-League, hopes are higher, especially after an impressive run of Summer League games. Despite hitting all the checkboxes, though, Banton gets cut — painfully close but never gets to suit up for his hometown Raptors.

That is the story of Javon Freeman-Liberty.

The Chicago native lived out his childhood dreams of playing basketball (almost) entirely within the state of Indiana. After leading his high school team to consecutive State Title games (and one championship), he had a short stint with Valparaiso (Indiana) before returning home to play for DePaul. In his college career, JFL would garner a pair of All-Defensive team selections to go along with his inclusion on the All-Freshman, Most Improved, and First Team All-MVC teams.

Going undrafted but ultimately signing with the Bulls must have felt like a dream come true for Freeman-Liberty. While he never suited up for the Bulls, JFL made the most of his time with the Windy City Bulls, averaging 18.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists, and 1.4 steals. He showed no signs of slowing down in July as one of the standouts during Summer League. Freeman-Liberty averaged 21.2 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.4 assists while shooting 46% from three and making the All-Summer League Second Team.

Unfortunately, his performance was not enough to land a deal with the Bulls. So, the Raptors charged in like a four-legged creature rampaging through Pamplona!

Familiar territory: Facing long odds

Mohamadou Gueye and Kevin Obanor are currently signed to Exhibit 10 contracts. Players on these contracts are typically waived and then retained by the team’s G-League affiliate. While their paths likely won’t end in playing for the Raptors, crazier things have happened — especially in their lives!

At first glance, Gueye looks like the prototypical “Raptors-y” signing. He’s 6’9, runs the floor well, and has a defense-first mentality. Would you believe Mo is only a few years removed from being a 5’9 point guard in high school? Take a closer look at Gueye’s game and you’ll notice a surprisingly smooth handle with good court vision. Thanks to a late growth spurt, Mo was able to harness his point guard skills before blossoming into the ideal player for today’s NBA, a versatile big man who can do it all.

A big man who can bring up the ball and be an excellent defender? Gueye, whose parents are from Senegal, may be following the path of another Raptor from the championship squad!

Obanor’s path to a Raptors uniform has been a long, uphill climb. In grade 8, Obanor was short in stature, wide in frame, and more interested in watching sports rather than playing them. He was cut from his basketball team and was only able to stay courtside because he was the water boy.

“A lot of people were making fun of me for not making the team,” Obanor said. “There was a mental aspect that came with it. I just used that as fuel and it made me more competitive. It all paid off.”

Obanor hit his growth spurt in high school and never looked back. While playing for Oral Roberts, Obanor took a page out of VanVleet’s book by causing shockwaves in the NCAA tournament. He led his 15th-seeded Oral Roberts team to an upset victory over the heavily favoured Ohio State Buckeyes!

Kevin wrapped up a highly successful college career by joining the 2000-point, 1000-rebound club. Only 126 NCAA players have amassed those thresholds, including Hall-of-Famers, Tim Duncan, Larry Bird, and Lew Alcindor.

When Fred VanVleet signed with the Houston Rockets, he left a large hole in the Raptors organization. With Nowell, Freeman-Liberty, Gueye, and Obanor, the hope is that these players (along with Toronto) have bet on themselves wisely!

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