2017: Fred VanVleet returns to Koch Arena
Fred VanVleet has emerged as one of the top storylines in these NBA Finals.
From being overlooked coming out of Rockford, Illinois, to helping Wichita State to a Final Four and an undefeated regular season, to going undrafted, VanVleet has become the underdog story of the NBA Finals as the spark plug off the bench for the Toronto Raptors against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
On the world’s biggest basketball stage, VanVleet has played the third-most minutes (35.5 per game) and scored the third-most points (16.0 per game) for the Raptors and held his own against the NBA’s best. With the best-of-seven series tied, 1-1, Game 3 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California is set for 8 p.m. Central time Wednesday.
That kind of production has surprised many basketball fans across the nation, but to those who grew up with VanVleet, coached him and played with him, not even this type of success surprises them.
“He’s not afraid of the moment, never has been,” said East Tennessee State coach Steve Forbes, who coached the 6-foot guard as an assistant at Wichita State from 2013-15. “At first glance, you look at Fred and think, ‘Ahh, he’s not that good of an athlete. He’s not that tall. He doesn’t jump very high.’
“But none of that matters because Fred is just a frickin’ winner.”
Here are the stories of when others knew that VanVleet was special.
‘Nah, we ain’t losing’
The moment Joe Danforth realized his stepson was different was when Fred VanVleet was a senior at Rockford Auburn and led the team to a 22-game winning streak and its first Final Four at the Illinois state tournament in 37 years.
There was a playoff game, Danforth recalls, where VanVleet’s team was trailing by double digits at the start of the fourth quarter. But with a trip to the state semifinals on the line, VanVleet would not be denied.
“Fred was just like, ‘Nah, we ain’t losing,’” Danforth said. “He threw the whole team on his back and carried us to the win.”
It’s that type of hyper-competitiveness that Danforth thinks is why VanVleet has won at every stop of his career.
After a successful career in Rockford, VanVleet followed that up with a four-year, All-American career at Wichita State and became the program’s career leader in steals.
When he went undrafted, VanVleet earned a spot with the Toronto Raptors and led the Raptors 905 to a NBA Developmental League championship in his rookie season. Now an integral part of the NBA club, VanVleet has been a reason why the Raptors have reached the NBA Finals.
“People didn’t think he was an NBA guy because of the whole athleticism thing,” Danforth said. “He wasn’t a sexy pick. He wasn’t a 6-5 guy.
“But the hard work beat all of that out.”
‘Unbelievable confidence about himself’
The moment WSU coach Gregg Marshall realized VanVleet was different was when he was a freshman in the 2013 NCAA Tournament and drilled a three-pointer from the left wing in the final 90 seconds to secure Wichita State’s 76-70 victory over No. 1 seed Gonzaga to spring its Final Four run.
VanVleet went on to become the general for the team for the next three seasons, taking and making more big shots, but it was this first one — when he was a freshman role player off the bench — that Marshall still remembers vividly as VanVleet’s breakout moment.
“Fred is just the utmost competitor and he despises losing,” Marshall said. “He backs it up by having an unbelievable confidence about himself and that permeates throughout the entire team. That’s why guys trust him in these moments and that just feeds his inner confidence.
“I’ve got supreme confidence in Fred. I had that belief in him then and I believe in him now, the only difference is now the stage is bigger.”
Counting the last three games of the Eastern Conference finals, VanVleet is averaging 16.0 points on 58% shooting off the bench in his last five playoff games.
That scoring punch has made VanVleet a key piece in these Finals with ABC commentator Stan Van Gundy commenting in a Game 1 victory that VanVleet was the best player on the floor. But to Marshall, the scoring is only bringing more attention to what VanVleet was already doing: helping his team win.
“There are so many things he does that helps your team win without making shots,” Marshall said. “But now that the ball is going in, everybody is going, ‘Oh, Fred VanVleet is one of the most valuable players in the series.’ But really, he’s helping them even when he’s not shooting well. Obviously making shots at the percentage he’s making them now that just takes him up a level and makes him a star.”
‘He has things that you can’t teach’
The moment Steve Forbes realized VanVleet was different was when Wichita State was trailing in a game.
Like during their undefeated regular season in 2014, when the Shockers trailed by 19 points with less than 12 minutes left in the second half at Missouri State. VanVleet never panicked and his composure rubbed off on his teammates, as WSU rallied to force overtime and ultimately win 72-69.
“When we were down, that’s when Fred raised his game to another level,” Forbes said. “There was no way him and Ron Baker were going to lose that game. When the chips were down, Fred was always the guy who got us going. When we were behind, it was like he took it personal. That’s the winner in him.”
VanVleet didn’t need to score to help lead comebacks. Seeing their leader remain so confident had a way of almost willing his teammates to victory.
“He never wavered and that’s exactly what you want in someone who is leading your team,” said former teammate J.R. Simon. “That game at Missouri State, Fred was always composed and he settled us down. It was like he knew. When you’re a part of a team, then you get to truly witness that kind of leadership and how valuable it is and that’s what Fred gave us.”
According to Forbes, it’s the intangibles that make VanVleet special.
“Fred isn’t your typical NBA player and that shows you how tough and how smart he is to be able to be out there during crunch time,” Forbes said. “He’s smart enough to know he doesn’t always have to make the pass that makes the play. He can make the pass that makes the pass that makes the play, like the hockey assist. He just understands how to play and where to be and that may sound easy, but it’s not easy to do at that level.
“He just has things that you can’t teach.”
‘His heart is bigger than anything’
The moment Jerry Stackhouse realized VanVleet was different was the first time he came to a workout for the Raptors’ developmental team, the Raptors 905.
After practice, players started playing make-it, take-it 1-on-1. It started out playfully, but it soon became serious for VanVleet and he left as the winner.
“That’s when I knew just how much of a competitor Fred VanVleet was,” said Stackhouse, who was the Raptors 905 coach then. “I knew right there how much he was going to fight for a spot. I knew he was undersized, but man, his heart is bigger than anything.”
When the Raptors 905 lost the first game in a three-game championship series in the D-League Finals, Stackhouse knew the team could use VanVleet. The Raptors 905 had allowed 119 points in the Game 1 loss and Stackhouse had a feeling VanVleet could control the tempo in two must-win games.
VanVleet returned and averaged 22 points, 6 rebounds and 12.5 assists in two double-digit victories as Raptors 905 claimed the title, holding Rio Grande Valley to 85 and 96 points in those wins.
“When Fred came in, the game just completely changed,” Stackhouse said. “All of a sudden, (Rio Grande Valley’s) speed was no longer there. He completely controlled the game and attacked them with his own pace. He’s not the biggest or the fastest, but Fred understands how the game is played and he’s more than able to make up. for any of his shortcomings. He’s just a very, very smart player.”
VanVleet is the first Shocker in more than two decades (since Antione Carr with the 1997-98 Utah Jazz) to play in the NBA Finals.
Carr was among the Shocker alumni who helped create the “Play Angry” mantra during VanVleet’s time with WSU. After meeting him personally, Carr instantly became a fan of how VanVleet carried himself.
“He’s the perfect example of the ‘Play Angry’ style to me,” Carr said. “It’s all about, ‘Do you respect me and do you respect my game?’ If you don’t, then I’m going to show you why you should have. To me, Fred embodies that to the fullest because a lot of people didn’t believe in him.”
That’s why Carr is so excited that VanVleet is finally getting his chance to prove himself on the biggest stage.
While it might be a surprise to the rest of the country, to Carr and others who have known VanVleet before his NBA career, they have learned long ago never to doubt what VanVleet can do on a basketball court.
“Now it’s time for Fred to take that ‘Play Angry’ attitude and announce himself,” Carr said. “’Hey, I’m Fred VanVleet, I’m Mr. Bet On Yourself and I’m here to stay.”