By Michael Grange in Toronto
By Michael Grange in Toronto
Fred VanVleet isn't the most athletic Toronto Raptors player. Definitely not the tallest. Or the fastest. But he might be the smartest, the most tenacious and the one who knows that no matter how bad things get on the court, life could be much, much worse.

The cafeteria at the BioSteel Centre is one of the nicer places to eat in Toronto. Located on the second floor of the Raptors practice facility, it features floor-to-ceiling windows with sweeping views of Lake Ontario and offers everything from grab-n-go smoothies to meals made to order from the highest quality ingredients — it’s like a Whole Foods with chefs. There are big-screen TVs, couches for lounging, an up-to-date collection of magazines, video-game consoles and a couple of Pop-a-Shot stations. It is an inviting place to hang out. And with all the Raptors players and staff coming and going, it’s also a handy place to get a feel for what’s going on at any point during a long NBA campaign: Who’s up, who’s down — that kind of thing.

Earlier this season, Dan Tolzman, the Raptors assistant general manager and director of player personnel, was having lunch in that cafeteria with second-year point guard Fred VanVleet when he noticed something: The imperturbable 24-year-old was showing no signs of stress in any shape or form — same as always, in other words. Tolzman, who scouted VanVleet extensively at Wichita State and pushed hard for the Raptors to sign him as an undrafted free agent in the summer of 2016, took note because at the time VanVleet was mired in a deep shooting funk — the kind that can often upend a young player, particularly early in a season.

VanVleet started the year shooting 30.8 percent in his first 12 games and made just three of his first 18 three-point attempts. Worse, he was struggling to make layups. The sight of VanVleet hurling himself through the paint, followed by a hard landing and the ball rolling off the rim or getting swatted away was becoming all too familiar, but he seemed unbothered. “You’d never know he was in a big slump,” says Tolzman, admiringly. “He was the exact same guy. Who knows what was going on in his head? He’s probably thinking it over and getting up 500 extra shots to get out of it, but he doesn’t let anybody know it and he doesn’t let it impact the way he approaches the game. That’s a huge attribute.”

It’s one VanVleet takes pride in, understanding that it’s a big reason why he keeps marching forward when a lot of more-obviously talented players fall back. “You take a high-energy guy [at a time when] he’s not making shots and he’s getting beat on defence and stuff,” VanVleet says. “Without the IQ, that mental strength, that emotional stability, he’s going to get down on himself. And then he’s not even bringing his energy, that one thing that makes him good, and he keeps dropping and dropping.”

“Just look at him! He’s not that tall, he’s not that athletic, but he still gets the job done.”

VanVleet keeps rising. He didn’t get down on himself or at the very least didn’t let his doubts distract him. Not surprisingly, his slump was short-lived. The kid who couldn’t shoot straight to start the season has hit 41.7 per cent of his threes over the next 51 games – best on the Raptors and 20th league-wide. During the same stretch, VanVleet has averaged 9.3 points and 3.4 assists against just one turnover in 21 minutes a game. No other guard coming off the bench in the NBA can match his productivity per minute.

After being signed as the team’s fourth point guard behind Kyle Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright, it took VanVleet just over a full season to morph from afterthought to essential piece of the Raptors devastating second unit, and establish himself as a crunch-time regular alongside the Raptors starters. “I’m not the most amazing athlete — I understand that,” he says. “But my character, my IQ, the way I think the game — [those] are my things.”

Smart Cookie
Even while still with Raptors 905, VanVleet had the ear of Kalamian and the big club's coaching staff.

For the Raptors scouting department, VanVleet is a triumph. Finding future NBA stars isn’t all that hard; they are nearly all prodigies, advertised well before they arrive in the league by rare blends of size, skill and athleticism that are harder to miss than to identify. VanVleet represents the other end of the spectrum — he’s barely six-feet tall, has just an average wing span for that below-average height and, while quick, would not qualify as explosive by NBA standards. All of which explains why 30 teams passed on drafting him — twice. But the Raptors, lacking a 2016 second-round pick, believed someone with VanVleet’s intangibles might be able find a way to prove effective at the next level. They signed him as a free agent, benefitting from the early legwork Tolzman had done and the team’s relationship with VanVleet’s management team, which also represents Lowry.

But even though the Raptors saw something in VanVleet, it’s still telling that the rest of the NBA didn’t or couldn’t see the qualities that have made him successful. Quantifying will, mental toughness, emotional IQ and perseverance remains an inexact science. “Every time I saw him, I came away thinking, ‘Man, I wonder if he’s good enough to play,’” says Tolzman. “But I just love him. I love everything about how he approaches the game. He’s a good shooter and just tough.”

Lowry, an undersized guard who was the 24th player taken in 2006 but ranks third in his draft class in WinShares, believes teams make it too complicated. “Just look at him! He’s not that tall, he’s not that athletic, but he still gets the job done,” says Lowry of VanVleet, whom he took under his wing as a rookie. “Look what he did in college,” the veteran continues, referencing the fact VanVleet was two-time conference player of the year at Wichita State, where the Shockers went 91-15 with him as a starter. “That takes skill, that takes knowledge, that takes smarts. And then he got here and you could tell he was a guy who watches basketball, knows basketball and knows his job. He’s smart as shit.”

DeMar DeRozan has similarly taken to VanVleet: “He’s a helluva individual, man. You wouldn’t think he be a young player. The maturity he carry himself with, the toughness that he walk with. You see it in him. It shows on a basketball court.”

The vets aren’t just gassing VanVleet for the sake of a quote. Perhaps the best evidence of their respect is that a second-year guard who played his 100th NBA game on Sunday — all off the bench — has their ear when it comes to in-game adjustments, tactics and coverages. “When he sees something, he speaks up,” says Lowry. “And I always go to him anyway … ‘What do you see?’ Because I can’t see everything he sees. I go to my coaches too, but he sees things from the same perspective I do.”

And it’s not just teammates who seek VanVleet’s input. As far back as last season when VanVleet was seeing limited minutes and still playing semi-regularly for Raptors 905, assistant coach and defensive coordinator Rex Kalamian found himself tapping into the smarts of one of the least experienced players on the roster. “The day before a game I’ll be watching what a particular team is doing and there might be a certain pick-and-roll that we’re having trouble guarding,” says Kalamian. “So I’ll watch the film, come up with a plan and I’ll go to Fred and ask him: ‘What do you think about this coverage? Is it possible for us to be able to play this way? Can the point guard get over the screen here?’ And I’ll trust his opinion.

“He just has a good feel for it … I know he’ll give me his honest opinion, whether that’s a good coverage for us and — from a player’s perspective — whether we can actually execute it. He gives me really good insight about how we’re guarding things.”

Big man on campus
During four years at Wichita State, VanVleet was a two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year and the Shockers went 91-15 when he started.

VanVleet making himself a valued resource for teammates and coaches alike didn’t happen by accident. He believed he had something to contribute, regardless of his role and he made a point of joining in the conversation. “It started a little bit last year,” he says. “I wasn’t playing much but I never sat at the end of the bench. I wanted to sit with the coaches. I wanted to hear what they were talking about. I wanted to sit with the guys who were in the game and learn in practice and walk-throughs. I’m not playing but I’m watching and listening to the coaches; I want to understand the game plans.

“I think I just earned the coaches’ respect. That’s not to say by any stretch that I’m dictating any game plans or coverages or anything. But to have that little voice is huge and something I take a lot of pride in.”

That VanVleet is heard by the club’s coaching staff and veterans alike speaks to his ability to read the room — a reflection not only of his basketball smarts, but his people smarts. There is a right time and a wrong time for a young player to let all-stars know what he thinks, and so far, VanVleet has walked the line without repercussion. “We talk about stuff all the time. I give them my input, even about off-the-court stuff,” says VanVleet. “I’m not going to say it’s ‘valued’ or anything like that, but as long I’m in the conversation that’s a testament to those guys too.”

But have there been disagreements? “I’ll argue with Kyle sometimes,” VanVleet says. “But I know when to stop and I understand when he’s not listening and when DeMar’s not listening, and both of those guys, I think, respect me enough, where if they don’t want to listen to me they just nod their head and say ‘Aight.’ In their heads, they’re probably saying, ‘Go f— yourself.’ But they haven’t said it out loud so far.”

Lowry has watched VanVleet’s ability to make himself heard with a certain amount of wonder. The Raptors all-star guard was always a high-IQ player with no shortage of opinions, but earlier in his career he struggled to get his message across. He would grow frustrated and react poorly, one reason Lowry developed a ‘hard-to-coach’ label. He admires VanVleet’s confidence and ability to communicate with teammates and coaches alike. “When I was younger, I knew what I knew, but the emotional side would kind of get in the way and people wouldn’t listen to me,” says Lowry. “Fred is very emotional, but he has a good way of keeping it in … he’s very fiery, but people don’t know because his persona is little bit smoother than mine.”

VanVleet learned to rein himself in early on. His stepfather, Joe Danforth, was a military man and later a police detective. Joe set VanVleet straight when he told his headstrong son — who had a habit of making his frustration with less-committed teammates all too plain early in high school — that it’s hard for a general to lead if the troops aren’t loyal to him. Similarly, growing up the youngest of four basketball-playing brothers, VanVleet figured out how to make a point without upsetting the pecking order.

“I was five when my biological father was murdered. So, from five you understand — boom — that’s the life you’re in and that’s how things can go.”

Ultimately it was those qualities — the combination of his hoops IQ, his people skills and his toughness — that convinced Tolzman that VanVleet would be able to thrive. “That’s what separates busts from guys who make it,” says Tolzman. “A lot of times you don’t know until you bring them in to what extent guys have that. But with Fred you could always tell, you could see the way he never got sped up, he never got stressed out about plays. He never would allow his teammates to get flustered in a game, so you could see how mentally strong he seemed to be … I don’t want to say you can quantify the mental toughness guys have, but the poise guys show on the court tells you a lot.

“I’ve never seen Fred have that look in his eyes where he’s saying ‘I don’t understand what’s going on.’ He’s always dialed in and knows what he’s doing. As a scout, if you watch the right parts of the game and you look hard enough, you can usually get an idea of that.”

Slumps don't impact VanVleet. Even during a 1-for-9 shooting night against Detroit, he nailed the winning shot with 1.1 seconds to play like he hadn't missed all game.

VanVleet’s ability to compartmentalize and stay calm under pressure has revealed itself multiple times this season. In the Raptors’ riveting overtime win on the road against the Detroit Pistons on March 7, VanVleet was having a rare off-night and shooting just 1-of-9 from the field when DeRozan found him wide-open in the corner with 1.1 seconds left and the game in the balance. VanVleet drained the game-winner like he hadn’t missed a shot all night, walking back to the bench afterwards as if the make was a foregone conclusion. Two nights later VanVleet was the only Raptor to play all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter of Toronto’s epic win over the visiting Houston Rockets as the Raptors held on to clip Houston’s NBA-best 17-game winning streak.

VanVleet’s mettle was tested in a different way in late January: On Sunday the 28th, he scored a career-high 25 points in a home win over the Los Angeles Lakers. In the wee hours of Monday the 29th, his fiancée, Shontai Neal, gave birth to the couple’s first child, a daughter named Sanaa Marie. He stayed with them in hospital until Tuesday afternoon, then arrived at the Air Canada Centre 10 minutes before tipoff against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He was the central component in two game-winning plays down the stretch — creating an open jumper in the lane for DeRozan that put the Raptors up four with 40 seconds left, and then boxing out Wolves seven-footer Karl-Anthony Towns on a missed Andrew Wiggins three with such picture-perfect technique that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey had it cued up on video to show his team immediately after the game.

Got that? Score a career high, become a first-time dad, make some clutch plays in crunch time — all in the space of 48 hours. “Freddy is one of those teammates that will go down in my book as one of my favourite by his toughness and the way he carries himself as an individual,” says DeRozan. “It speaks volumes and it shows in big moments. He’s a little tough firecracker.”

VanVleet says he never had a specific role model when it came to establishing the hard-to-measure qualities that have been so key to his success. A Lakers fan from afar growing up in Rockford, Ill., he admired Phil Jackson’s outer Zen and how the coach calmly let his players solve their problems on the court, rather than rescue them with timeouts. But there weren’t examples like that close at hand. “I give my stepfather a lot of credit for training my mind to be kind of stone cold, but he’s not that way in any shape or form,” says VanVleet. “He’s a pretty emotional, passionate guy. I took the message he was telling me but I really didn’t follow after him. I’m kind of the only person like that I know.”

Growing up in Rockford demanded a certain toughness and honed the kind of perspective that allowed VanVleet to see his way through hardships, on or off the floor. A city of about 150,000 located two hours west of Chicago, Rockford had the fifth-highest rate of violent crime in the U.S. among cities with populations above 100,000, according to a 2015 FBI report. Last year, it was deemed the most dangerous mid-sized city in America.

“You have to be able to be smart to play this game. Your athletic abilities are going to wear off and you have to rely on your knowledge.”

VanVleet experienced that violence first-hand and very young: “I was five when my biological father was murdered in the streets. So, from five you understand — boom — that’s the life you’re in and that’s how things can go,” he says. “But you’re in that environment and those things shape who you are and you make a choice about who you want to be. And I was blessed to have two parents who broke their back so that [my brothers and I] didn’t have to go outside and do stupid things.

“Now, we could have if we wanted to; some of my brothers made some choices that weren’t the best, [and] I’ve been in a million situations that no one ever knows about and will remain that way, but was lucky enough to never get caught, let’s say that. You dodge bullets — not literally, but sometimes — and it’s normal.

“And I didn’t know it wasn’t normal until I went away to school. My coach is a millionaire and his kids are born to a millionaire and they grew up in this huge house and you’re meeting all these people and you go, ‘Oh shit, I grew up pretty bad, I just didn’t know it at the time.’ So, if you’re going to practice [at WSU] and coach is cussing and fussing and losing his mind, I’m smiling, thinking: ‘It’s okay, I’m not going home.’”

A year ago, no one would have predicted that, of all the Raptors players, VanVleet would be the only one on the floor for the final 12 minutes of the biggest game of the year, a 108-105 won over Houston.

It’s the kind of outlook that can help put an early-season shooting slump in perspective, and it’s the stuff of which long, productive careers are made. “You have to be able to be smart to play this game,” says Lowry, who loves to talk about VanVleet. “You can be a little bit dumb [at the beginning], but after a while your athletic abilities are going to wear off and you have to rely on your knowledge of the game and your studiousness and knowing how to channel your emotions.”

As he’s speaking, VanVleet happens to walk into view along the hallway outside the Raptors dressing room, and Lowry’s volume picks up so his protégé can hear a steady stream of chirps, the kind of good-nature ribbing that signifies familiarity, respect and acceptance. VanVleet considers the source and smirks. “Give him the real story,” he tells Lowry.

Lowry laughs and continues his upside-down scouting report: “…and he’s slow and he can’t really shoot and he sucks at basketball…”

The undrafted kid from Rockford laughs and keeps walking, confident that somehow he’ll figure it out.

Photo Credits

Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images; Peter Aiken/Getty Images; Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images; Chris Schwegler/NBAE/Getty Images; Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images