Meet the under-the-radar Raptor who may be the key to Toronto's success

Before Fred VanVleet became the most unlikely complementary option for the Toronto Raptors’ two All-Stars, he remembers playing in gymnasiums in front of the top college coaches in the nation, attempting to impress them only to meet wandering eyes and rejections. It was a long way from where VanVleet now finds himself, with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry trusting him in the season’s biggest moments.

The 6-foot VanVleet developed his game in Rockford, Illinois, and became an all-state player while turning down more premier AAU team invites from people who came and went. He led his high school team to state championship contention, defeating sponsored teams and ones with elite recruits. The high school experience prepared VanVleet for Wichita State, for the fact that this was his story. Forever overlooked, yet forever winning over looks.

“Growing up, high school was my first impression to all the internet rankings and hype machine — and it’s some [expletive],” VanVleet told Yahoo Sports. “That was my first impression with it. Growing up, that’s the world. Your name being on a website, on an article, on a magazine, I thought that’s the world. But that [expletive] don’t mean nothing. When I’m playing with my local teams and my friends, we’re beating the sponsored teams and the teams with the big recruits and high school rankings. We’re beating everybody.

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“I would see the best of the best college coaches in the stands, and they just didn’t see it in me. So I had to make my own way. I went to Wichita State, and I was surrounded by other players like that. We went to the Final Four [in 2013], rewrote history, and we all embraced it. This was the way it was going to be, having to prove yourself, and we were going to make the most of it.”

When VanVleet joined the Raptors on a partially guaranteed two-year contract in July 2016, Toronto’s front office had identified in him some unique mental and physical traits that indicated he had the potential to stick around. Sure enough, he survived the final cuts out of training camp and made the roster as a reserve point guard. “A lot of people lost bets,” VanVleet laughs now.

It’s tough to get a handle on Fred VanVleet. (AP)
It’s tough to get a handle on Fred VanVleet. (AP)

No one is laughing when it comes to VanVleet’s game. He has become an ideal complement to the Raptors’ stars in clutch moments, a reliable ball-handler and shooter who brings toughness and leadership. His stepfather, Joe Danforth, developed a discipline in the household early in VanVleet’s life, from a 10 p.m. curfew in ninth grade to dating restrictions to early wake-up calls for workouts. Danforth has been a police detective for the past 23 years, working sectors such as housing development, violent crimes and now gang-related issues.

During a visit back home during his freshman year at Wichita State, Danforth remembers, VanVleet requested to start boxing. Danforth began boxing at age 19 when he was in the Army, and his three sons, Fred, J.D. and Darnell, had dabbled in sparring matches. Fred VanVleet wanted more.

“There’s nobody you can depend on but you,” Danforth said of VanVleet’s boxing lessons. “It takes the fear out of you and creates that toughness within you.”

“Fred couldn’t settle for being average, because a random dude can get out of bed and be average,” Danforth, 47, continued. “He followed discipline and followed the rules. He’s one tough kid.”

VanVleet helped Toronto clinch its postseason berth March 7 — on a game-winning 3-pointer off a DeRozan pass to the corner on a night he finished 2 of 10 from the field. “We trust our bench more than ever, and Fred brings us a calm player and is a big part of that,” DeRozan told Yahoo Sports.

The Raptors’ bench has a different energy than past years: the activity of Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl in the frontcourt, the shooting of C.J. Miles and the dynamic backcourt of VanVleet and Delon Wright. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers could still prove too much in May, but that’s the genius of a generational player creating the ultimate separation among the slimmest margins.

For the year, VanVleet, 24, is averaging 8.9 points and 3.2 assists in 20.2 minutes per game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. His steady performances have become the norm, including 15 points, four assists and three 3-pointers in Wednesday’s blowout win over Boston. The Los Angeles Clippers’ Lou Williams and Houston’s Eric Gordon will be strong candidates for Sixth Man of the Year, but the Raptors have an all-around candidate in VanVleet and a scorer in Miles in contention, too. As VanVleet said: “Sixth Man was one of my goals at the beginning of the year. I have a goal list that I write down in my journal and that was one of them. I know with guys like Lou Will and Eric Gordon, it’s going to be tough. But the minutes I’m playing, the impact I’m having, it says a lot. And I’m hopeful to be in that conversation.”

As this season has gone on, VanVleet has supplemented DeRozan and Lowry, whose usages and stress increase every postseason.

Fred VanVleet is averaging 8.9 points and 3.2 assists in 20.2 minutes per game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. (AP)
Fred VanVleet is averaging 8.9 points and 3.2 assists in 20.2 minutes per game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range. (AP)

“DeMar and Kyle started trusting me more, I could sense it, and my coaches started trusting me even more,” VanVleet told Yahoo Sports. “We know we’re only going to go as far as DeMar and Kyle are going to take us, but I’m just trying to be that guy that takes the pressure off of them. Whether it’s making reads, making shots, this time of year you have to have another option. There’s so many times they’re denied, and then you have to make a play. It’s a process by success, not a process of trial and error. I try to get them the ball, and if not, I make a play. As good things happen, it grows and grows and grows. DeMar and Kyle see it, the coaches see it, and it grows over time.

“There was no movie scene where I walked in and said, ‘All right, I’m Fred, I’m here.’ It just … kind of happened.

“With my defense, picking guys up full court, it was about earning trust with my ball-handling and playmaking ability, then I started making shots. Even when I wasn’t playing last season, players respected my voice. The guys trust my basketball IQ, that I have a pure heart when it comes to the game. We all lead ourselves, but I try to be an honest guy.”

VanVleet remembers those high school runs with AAU travel teams from Naperville, where he played with friends, and taking those lessons back to his high school team. He’ll be a restricted free agent at season’s end, but loyalty holds meaning to VanVleet.

“I was just about the exposure growing up, and now I’m getting it,” VanVleet said. “People were hitting me up in high school, saying come play with us. But we all know what comes into that. There’s no point. As long as I was in the gym with exposure, with my coaches in the gym, I feel I had a better chance.

“I’m here to stay now.”

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