When Fred VanVleet signed with Wichita State in 2011, everybody knew the Shockers got a point guard and a leader. Did they get a shooter? Even VanVleet wasn’t sure.
The knock on VanVleet — a mild knock, to be sure — focused on his jump shot. One recruiting service called it a gray area (while improving). Others focused their praise on his leadership, his passing and almost every area except his shooting.
It seems odd now, with VanVleet averaging 12 points and making 44.7 percent of his three-pointers, fourth in the Missouri Valley Conference. The player that fans watched since last season is a guy nobody wants to leave unguarded.
Those assessments held some merit, says VanVleet, a sophomore from Rockford, Ill. Early in his high school career, he didn’t shoot much. He always played unselfishly, even in the summer, so perhaps he didn’t display his jump shot enough.
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“Junior year was, probably, a bad year for me shooting the ball,” VanVleet said. “From senior year on, I was getting better each year.”
With VanVleet giving the Shockers (16-0, 3-0 MVC) a good scorer at the point and playing turnover-free for four straight games, they will try to extend their school-record winning streak at Missouri State (12-3, 2-1) on Saturday night.
VanVleet’s scoring ability never concerned WSU coach Gregg Marshall during the recruiting process.
“He’s always made shots as long as I’ve watched him,” Marshall said. “He does have a lot of thumb on the ball and he has an interesting spin on it, but it goes in. And he hits big shots. I don’t want to change it.”
VanVleet didn’t change his form. He worked on his jump shot for long hours when he arrived at WSU. As a freshman, he missed 16 of his first 22 threes. He finished the year making 14 of 27 and shot 40.8 percent for the season behind the arc. This season, he is 17 of 38 from three-point range. He scored a career-high 21 points at Tulsa and his list of game-changing shots, highlighted by last season’s shot clock-beating three against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament, grows.
“It’s just a consistency thing,” he said. “In high school, the game came a lot easier so I could get away with it. You never put the time or energy into it in high school that you do in college.”
Rockford Auburn coach Bryan Ott knew VanVleet’s reputation and isn’t sure how it started. He moved up to the varsity midway through his freshman year and started as a sophomore. In those years, VanVleet passed and let upperclassmen score.
“We had to encourage him to take more shots,” Ott said. “He almost would rather make the assist than take the shot sometimes.”
As a junior and senior, he led Rockford in scoring. VanVleet enjoyed easy access to the gym and used it to fuel his perfectionist’s need to groove his jump shot. Ott watched VanVleet work on his follow-through, his footwork and being ready to shoot when the ball arrived in his hands.
I never felt like Fred was a poor shooter,” Ott said. “I don' t know if the knock on him came because he so much more willing to get other people open. I always dismissed that stuff because I knew what kind of player I had. He became a great shooter by senior year.”
No matter how much he scores, however, VanVleet is the rare basketball player who won’t be defined by his shooting. His leadership, his ball-handling and his will to win make him valuable regardless of his other contributions. MVC coaches are generous with their praise and slightly envious of Marshall for putting his team in the hands of VanVleet, who handed out a career-high 10 assists in Wednesday’s win over Illinois State, until 2016.
“His competitiveness and wanting to be around the ball and diving on the floor and digging his nose in there — he’s got that part of it and that makes guys good,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “And I think that’s part of why he scores. He’s got some of those intangibles … and those intangibles allow you to make tough plays, they allow you to make big plays.”