Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet winning over NBA’s best in 2019 NBA Finals
There’s something about the big stage of the NBA Finals and Fred VanVleet that agree.
The former Wichita State star once again found himself delivering an iconic shot, this one a knockout punch in the final two minutes of the Toronto Raptors’ 123-109 victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 Wednesday night at Oracle Arena.
With Golden State trying to steal momentum for a last-ditch rally, VanVleet ended any hopes of a comeback when he caught a pass from Kawhi Leonard on the right wing and hoisted a rainbow shot over the outstretched hands of Draymond Green with less than 1 second on the shot clock. Green knocked VanVleet to the ground, where he watched as his outrageously high arc splashed through the net, giving Toronto a 118-105 lead with 1:38 remaining.
It capped another stellar game for VanVleet, who finished with 11 points, including three three-pointers, three rebounds, two assists and three steals off the bench. More importantly, he played all but the final 51.7 seconds of the second half to finish off the victory, which gave Toronto a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“Fred has a heart, I don’t know how it fits into his chest,” said Marc Gasol, Toronto’s starting center. “He has a huge heart.”
VanVleet is the first Shocker to play in the NBA Finals in more than two decades, since Antoine Carr played with the Utah Jazz in the 1997 and 1998 NBA Finals.
In just three games, VanVleet (104) has already played in more minutes than any former WSU player in the Finals, surpassing Dave Stallworth, who played 98 minutes in seven games for the New York Knicks in 1970. VanVleet needs just seven points to pass Stallworth’s WSU record of 49 points scored in a Finals series.
While those records are far from VanVleet’s mind, his journey from Wichita State, where he played from 2012-16, to the NBA Finals has caught the attention of some of the game’s biggest stars.
“He was playing at Wichita State a couple of years ago, that’s crazy,” Chris Bosh, a former NBA champion and Toronto Raptors player, told The Eagle. “You can go from pretty much playing in the grasslands to competing for a NBA championship. That really can happen. That’s important for kids and people trying to accomplish their dreams. I’m always for it. I root for those guys.”
VanVleet’s underdog story has won over a whole new legion of fans now that he is starring in the NBA Finals.
From undrafted, to leading the Raptors’ minor-league team to a championship, to earning a spot with the NBA club, to now being one of the Raptors’ most consistent producers, VanVleet has even made fans out of his teammates.
“Favorite player right there in the NBA for me,” said Toronto’s Pascal Siakam, who also played with VanVleet with the Raptors 905 team. “He’s always calm, it’s crazy. I always look at him when I’m kind of rattled and I’m mad at myself about things. I just look at him and he’s always calm. He always has that same demeanor. We always have the eye contact where it’s like he tells me to relax.
“Fred is that type of player you love to have on your team. The energy that he brings to the team, his defense and then the three-point shooting. It’s awesome. Like I said, favorite player in the NBA.”
In the span of three years, VanVleet has gone from shutting down players in the Missouri Valley Conference to chasing around the NBA’s premier three-point shooter, Stephen Curry.
While Curry posted a playoff career-high 47 points on Wednesday, VanVleet continues to have a strong presence when defending Curry. According to NBA.com’s tracking data, Curry is shooting just 34.1% (15 of 44) from the field and 30% (6 of 20) on three-pointers when VanVleet is on the court; compared to 59.1% (13 of 22) from the field and 53.8 percent (7 of 13) on three-pointers when VanVleet is on the bench.
According to ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, VanVleet has held Curry to the lowest amount of points per 100 possessions (10.8) of any NBA defender this season.
Curry addressed VanVleet’s defensive presence following Wednesday’s game.
“He’s just consistent,” Curry said. “They usually try to have him press up full court try and make me work. I just try to make the simple decision, continue to try to get downhill in the paint and, honestly, the way that they load their defense in transition sometimes or even in the half court, he knows he has help behind him so he can be a lot more aggressive on the ball, and they give him the freedom to do that.”
On top of his defense on Curry, VanVleet has made 48.5% (16 of 33) of his shots through the first three games of the Finals.
That type of consistency is invaluable at this stage and something that has caught the eye of TNT analyst Kenny Smith.
“His poise has been his biggest attribute,” Smith told The Eagle. “He’s played with a great deal of poise here in the Finals and the Eastern Conference Finals. I like the fact that he’s been able to come back from performances he wasn’t accustomed to and play at this level. He’s playing under control and playing with great confidence and that’s 100 percent great to see.”
VanVleet’s “Bet On Yourself” mantra has always made for a compelling story. His play in the NBA Finals has only elevated the platform it’s on.
Now that Bosh has been able to see VanVleet perform in person, he says he’s found a new favorite player as well.
“I like that he didn’t get drafted and he has a chip on his shoulder,” Bosh told The Eagle. “He should carry that for the rest of his career. He’s a winner, man. Being at Wichita State, having that great program, being a product of that and then making his mark in the league, it’s been amazing to watch. It’s an inspiring story. He’s a huge part in this series and just to see his journey from where he’s come to now, it’s great to watch.”