Fred VanVleet told Shaq Morris he didn’t want him as a teammate, not the way Morris played that day in Wichita State’s basketball practice in December.
Morris reacted as one might expect, given that tough-love message.
He agreed, just like he agreed last spring when VanVleet called him and told him to study harder.
“He believes in me,” Morris said. “Out of everybody in the locker room, I look at Fred as my big brother, somebody that pushes me.”
VanVleet, a sophomore point guard, turned 20 last month and his teammates agree that age is 10 years short of his behavior.
“He’s just not going around like a fool doing crazy stuff,” senior center Kadeem Coleby said. “He’s humble. He has his priorities in check. When you have someone in that position doing those things, it makes it easy to follow him.”
VanVleet is the key figure in No. 2 Wichita State’s leadership structure, one in which seniors gracefully step aside for VanVleet, sophomore guard Ron Baker and junior guard Tekele Cotton. The four seniors, all transfers, lead in their own way, while acknowledging the importance of the younger players’ influence on and off the court.
Senior All-American Cleanthony Early provides emotion and brashness and his voice is heard. Senior Chadrack Lufile is the Shocker who cups his hand to his ear to bring more noise from the crowd during the tunnel walk video and dances during the awards ceremony at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
VanVleet, Baker and Cotton bring a calm, composed balance to the seniors’ passion. As guards, they control the basketball and so much more. All three practice, play and lift weights with maximum effort and minimum grumbles.
Baker sets an example by playing as hard in the last practice drill as he does in the first. Cotton’s easy-going personality and sense of humor make him popular with all teammates. VanVleet, true to his role on the court, runs the show with dignity.
“What type of person would resent (VanVleet)?” Early said. “I’m not that guy. He’s wise beyond his years, and that’s something I understand about him.”
Even last season, coaches knew who would take over the leadership roles in 2013-14. While managers sometimes worried over Carl Hall or Malcolm Armstead making it to film study on time, VanVleet, Baker and Cotton showed up with the early group. After the season, the transition to VanVleet’s team came without question or drama.
“Leadership — I wasn’t worried about that at all, not with these guys,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “They see the way (VanVleet) carries himself and the way he conducts his business.”
The perfect Shockers enjoy perfect chemistry and Marshall repeatedly remarks how much fun it is to coach this group and how easy their hard work and attitudes make his life. Players willingly fill their roles and celebrate the achievements of others. It didn’t have to work that way, not coming off a Final Four and not with four seniors.
“One of the neatest things about this team is that the seniors have recognized and allowed some of our younger guys to lead,” associate head coach Chris Jans said. “They’re unselfish, where most kids in their senior year are: ‘This is my team now.’ We were fortunate it was a seamless transition.”
When VanVleet comes off the floor, assistant coaches ask his suggestion for plays that will work, such is their respect for his feel for the game and understanding of the team.
“I’ve never asked a player,” Jans said. “I’ll ask Fred, ‘Hey Fred, what do you think we should run?’ And then I’ll go to (Marshall).”
VanVleet’s gift is that he can say whatever he believes in a way people accept. They know he is honest. They know he wants to win more than anybody else in the gym. They know he is working hard and they know he is happy taking one shot on senior day so the the seniors can say farewell with a memorable game at Koch Arena.
He is the player who steers Early away from referees when Early feels the need to question a call. He can tell Morris to get his act together and Morris decides to skip road trips so he can work on his conditioning with strength coach Kerry Rosenboom. When director of athletic academic services Gretchen Torline is unhappy with a teammate’s academics, she sends VanVleet to counsel him.
At a recent news conference, he told the TV media to stop asking questions about CBS Sports commentator Doug Gottlieb, a critic of WSU’s lofty ranking.
“First off, you’ve got to be a player,” VanVleet said. “Nobody’s taking those comments from a guy that’s not producing. Secondly, I’m a likable guy. I’m honest. At the end of the day, if I’m being real and I’m being honest, they know I’m not going to mislead them.”
Leader and the star
All the great chemistry on the team flows from VanVleet’s relationship with Early. A star senior and a fast-rising sophomore leader could result in conflict. Not on this team. Early’s emotions are channeled in positive ways by the influence of the three guards, allowing Early to get the most out of his talents.
“I’ve got to give the credit to him,” VanVleet said. “He could be fighting me and saying this-is-my-team-type of thing. He knows that if I’m leading and we’re both doing well, he’s going to shine. At the end of the day, I’ve got the ball in my hands and he’s only going to go as far as I go and I’m only going to go as far as he goes.”
VanVleet calms Early and gets him the ball in the right spots on the court, so much so that his three-point shooting percentages is up to 36.4 from 31.8 last season. He knows when getting Early shots will spark his effort on defense and isn‘t afraid to say so. Early is loading up on All-America honors and Player of the Year consideration. So is VanVleet, who also won MVC Player of the Year honors with Early second.
“Some people say things the wrong way,” Early said. “He says the right thing. That’s his spirit, that’s the soul that he has. It complements my spirit and my soul.”
Early does his part to motivate VanVleet.
“I’m the guy that fires them up the most,” he said. “We have guys that calm us down. I fire a lot of guys up with my attitude.”
When Early wants to talk to officials, a habit that drives Marshall bonkers, VanVleet (and sometimes Baker or Cotton) are quick to redirect him and tell him that things will be OK.
“He knows that I’m agreeing with him 90 percent of the time, because he does have a point 90 percent of the time,” VanVleet said. “At that point, I’m telling him the call has been made and let’s move on and don’t let it affect your next play.”
While VanVleet possesses an obvious motivation to work well with Early, it is his relationship with the younger players that reveals the depth and foresight of his leadership. Morris, a redshirt freshman, is going through a difficult year. He came to WSU out of shape. That made him prone to injury, which kept him from getting in shape. VanVleet sees the talent and explosive athletic ability in the 6-foot-7, 268-pound Morris and knows the Shockers need him in the future.
Marshall wanted Morris to hear it from somebody other than a coach, so he turned to VanVleet (and Baker another time) to provide an honest assessment of Morris’ performance during a scrimmage.
“Coach asked him, ‘Fred, do you think (Shaq) can help us next year?’ with the way I was playing and the shape I was in,” Morris said. “Fred looked at me, straight in my eye, and said ‘As of right now, I’m going to be honest with you, I’d rather have somebody else.’ That right there, pushed me in a totally different way, seeing my point guard and a person I look up to … tell me that I’m not doing well. I definitely take his advice.”
Last spring, Morris needed to improve his ACT score and focus on his books at Edmond (Okla.) Memorial. VanVleet called. Morris wore No. 23 in high school and VanVleet offered to give him that number at WSU. When that didn’t work, VanVleet told Morris to take No. 24 so they could be close.
“He told me ‘I need you do to this. I want you here. I want to play with you,’ ” Morris said. “He wants me to be the best I can be. I ended up getting a 23 on the ACT. After speaking to him, I’m studying harder for it, taking classes, and everything.”
VanVleet’s concern for the new players on the roster doesn’t end with the potential starters.
In early September, freshman guard D.J. Bowles collapsed during a practice and needed to be revived by trainer Todd Fagan with a defibrillator and CPR. The incident hit freshman walk-on John Robert Simon harder than most. He said himself, VanVleet and freshman Ria’n Holland witnessed Bowles’ collapse.
“It was pretty scary,” Simon said. “We found out (Bowles) couldn’t play, and at that point Fred took me under his wing. He helped me a lot.”
In late February, Simon’s best friend since kindergarten died from a blood clot. All the Shockers rallied around Simon, and Marshall gave him time off to grieve and attend Bubba Hamilton’s funeral.
“(VanVleet) was the first one who came up to me and talk to me and told me everything was going to be all right,” Simon said. “He’s not of one those where he’s too cool for me. He sees it as we’re all equal and we’re all on one team and he’s treated me that way.”
Simon attended the funeral in Oklahoma on the day the Shockers played Drake and cut down the nets to celebrate their MVC title. Simon came back for the game, arriving in the second half, and was glad he rejoined his teammates.
“That was a tough day … and Fred was the first one to text me and said everything was going to be OK and to stay strong and when I get back, everybody would be there for me,” Simon said. “Those little things meant a lot.”
That is the gift of a leader, understanding how thousands of small moments can produce something big. This season, the unselfishness of the seniors and the leadership skills of VanVleet, Baker and Cotton add up to 34 wins and the NCAA Tournament for the Shockers.