Nathan Philips Square was packed with literally millions of exuberant Raptors fans all there to celebrate Toronto’s first ever NBA championship. It was the usual love-fest for the most part with players in a semi-drunken haze, talking about this special group of players and thanking the fans. Fred VanVleet, in front of the chants of his name (“Freddy, Freddy!”), decided to take a different route and gave an honest answer that’s uncommon for these events. After thanking the fans, Fred took a shot at some of the critics for abandoning the team when they lost – especially getting swept two years in a row by LeBron and the Cavaliers. This little speech was VanVleet in a nutshell; no nonsense, and knowing when the right time was for the right play. There’s not many opportunities for one to take a stab at critical fans and get away with it, but like he always has – Fred always seemed to find a way.
Fred VanVleet grew up on the rough streets of Rockford, Illinois. His father, once a talented basketball player himself, was killed in a drug deal when Fred was only five years old. Fred’s mother would marry a Rockford police officer and his new stepfather would put him through the ringer with early morning workouts before school while bed checks were the new norm. Fred described it as “almost going to boot camp.” He hated it, but this was tough-love to keep Fred and his three brothers out of trouble in a dangerous neighbourhood. This would ultimately set the foundation for the level of discipline and preparedness exhibited in his every game.
VanVleet would attend Auburn High School, where he would suit up for the varsity basketball team. Fred would go on to become the all-time leading scorer in Rockford public school history. In his senior year, he led the Auburn Knights to a 22-game win streak and the school’s first Illinois high school final four appearance in 37 years. Despite these accolades and high recruiting ratings, no powerhouse college would offer VanVleet a scholarship. Fred would eventually accept an offer to play for the Wichita State Shockers, who had only made one single appearance in the NCAA tournament since 1988.
The Shockers 2012-13 campaign would be one where he and his teammates shocked the critics, thus becoming a recurring theme for Fred; Wichita State finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference en route to a number nine seed in the NCAA tournament. The shockers would go all the way to the Final Four, losing to the eventual champion Louisville Cardinals. While the Shockers were never able to capture the same team success with VanVleet over his last three college seasons, Fred would see his role on the team grow and twice received honours for the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. Things were looking up for VanVleet after his senior year, as he was ready to declare his eligibility for the NBA draft and achieve his hoop dreams.
VanVleet would accept workouts with the Lakers, Warriors, Raptors, Pistons, 76ers and Pacers. He undoubtedly had the basketball IQ and shooting skills that would translate to the professional game. However, fearing his size and below average wingspan for his height would become an issue, VanVleet was passed on *60* times in the 2016 NBA Draft – making him a free agent. There were offers by teams to take him in the second round, however this would have come with the agreement that Fred would have to cut his teeth in the G League for $20,000 over two years.
The Toronto Raptors would swoop in to offer VanVleet a chance to play with their summer league squad and an invitation followed to the big club’s training camp later that year. Fred would impress in both the summer league and training camp, but still had his work cut out for himself. He found himself fourth on the Raptors point guard depth chart behind All-Star Kyle Lowry, first man off the bench Cory Joseph, and promising former first round pick Delon Wright. VanVleet’s rookie season featured limited playing time with the big club and many assignments to minor league Raptors 905 where he would help lead them to their first ever G League Championship. Raptors fans reactions to VanVleet that season ranged from, “this little guy is pretty good, maybe he can turn into something” to “I just don’t see it with this VanVleet kid”. Whatever the case, no one was quite prepared for what was going to transpire that next season.
That summer, with Cory Joseph traded to the Indiana Pacers, a regular rotation spot opened up for VanVleet and he did not disappoint. Fred galvanized the Raptors “bench mob” alongside Delon Wright, CJ Miles, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl. Their bench became a key piece to leading the Raptors to a new franchise high in wins with 59. Fred would go on to set milestones of his own, setting new career highs in points in a game three separate times. He would rank fourth in the league in net efficiency and was the only full time bench player to be in the top 20 in league plus/minus. VanVleet would receive recognition for his strong play with a nomination for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award. Despite losing the award to former Raptor Lou Williams, “steady” Freddy was quickly turning into a fan favourite and the momentum was gaining made it seem that he could be the Raptors starting point guard of the future. Not bad for an undrafted small kid from Rockford with a below average wingspan for his height.
Going into the 2018-19 season Fred would earn a two-year deal worth over $17 million dollars. Now there was a bigger story that off-season when the Raps landed a top-five player in the game in Kawhi Leonard (with sharpshooter Danny Green as a throw-in to the deal). The dynamic of the team changed drastically and VanVleet would see his role on the team grow almost immediately. He would start games in the regular season for the first time in his career, and would then go on to start almost half the games he appeared in. His play would be inconsistent at times, and all the talk about him being the starting point guard of the future seemed a bit premature at best and absolutely nutty at worst. Still, VanVleet was playing close to 30 minutes a game, averaging 11 points and about five assists and a steal, and undoubtedly became a key contributor to a Raptors team that would finish second overall in the league with newfound (and actually realistic) championship aspirations.
VanVleet struggled for the first two and a half rounds of the playoffs, only breaking double digit points once (game one vs Orlando) in the team’s first 15 playoff games. Everything would change for VanVleet on May 20th with the birth of his second child, a son, Fred VanVleet Jr. The elder suited up the very next night for game four of the conference finals vs the Milwaukee Bucks in which the Raptors were trailing the series 2-1. Beast (dad) mode was activated and immediately felt; Fred would go on to score 13 points, go 3-3 from three point land, assist on six baskets, and add a steal to even the series for the Raps. From there on VanVleet never looked back, continuing his strong play against the Bucks and into the NBA Finals against the powerhouse Golden State Warriors.
Nothing could stop Fred at this point. The only time he didn’t score double digit points since the birth of his son was in game four of the finals, after catching the elbow of Warriors guard Shaun Livingston to the face. When the Raptors had their second chance to close out the series in game six, the plan on most offensive possessions seemed to be elementary: run down the shot clock and pass it to Fred for three points. And it worked…again…and again… and again. Kawhi may be a robot programmed to play basketball, but Fred had ice water running in his veins.
Fred VanVleet was on the court when the final seconds ticked by and the Raptors were crowned NBA champions and winners of the coveted Larry O’Brien Trophy. Kawhi would of course win Finals MVP, but not unanimously, as one of the 12 voters would stake a claim for Papa Fred who made over 52% of his three point attempts in the NBA Finals. This statement was heard and celebrated by Raptors fans, who would tip their caps to this diminutive player who was passed over five dozen times only three short years ago. I don’t mind him taking a stab at the haters even during a day of celebration; he’s been proving people wrong for many years now, and deserves that hall pass for his heroic play down the stretch. Just come back to training camp ready to play, ready to continue to grow, and ready to repeat.