Since he was a little boy growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Fred VanVleet has always set the bar high for himself.
Before the 2017-18 season, VanVleet’s second in the NBA, the young Raptors point guard made a list of goals in a journal he keeps. It’s an exercise he has done in the past and revels in, as it helps him mentally prepare for the upcoming year. This isn’t some quick, half-assed list scribbled untidily. VanVleet takes pride in assembling it, going into detail about both individual and team goals and including everything “from minutes played to games played to every stat you can imagine.”
Somewhere on that list, which was created during the preseason, VanVleet wrote the goal: Win Sixth Man of the Year. For an undersized (6-0), undrafted player who spent his rookie campaign bouncing back and forth from the G League, appearing in just 37 total games, it was a bold inclusion. But that’s Fred.
“I don’t try to put limits on myself,” he tells SLAM. “Before the season, when I didn’t even know how much I’d be playing, I still felt like that’s the type of impact I could have so I threw it down.”
It’s true: On a roster loaded with guards and headlined by the backcourt duo of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, VanVleet entered the year unsure of how much court time he’d be logging. And he ended it as the team’s leader in fourth quarter minutes per game (9.0) and as a finalist for – yep, you guessed it – Sixth Man of the Year.
VanVleet didn’t end up claiming the award, but the Wichita State product more than proved his worth, averaging 8.6 points (on 41 percent shooting from three) and 3.2 assists per contest. As a free agent this summer, he inked a two-year, $18 million contract to remain with the Raptors.
Making it to the NBA, and reaching such a milestone, was Fred’s dream from the very beginning; and in keeping with his go-getting personality, there was no plan B. At the age of seven, VanVleet’s first memory of the sport is watching the Lakers and 76ers battle in the 2001 Finals.
“I was hooked,” he recalls. “That was my dream to be on that stage one day.”
Where Fred was raised, those dreams can tend to feel impossibly distant. Rockford is a city about 90 miles northwest of Chicago that can be rough to come up in.
When VanVleet was in kindergarten, his father, Fred Manning, was shot and killed. It was a devastating introduction to the violence that plagued the environment — violence that only continued as VanVleet grew older.
“I’m going to middle school and some of my friends and people I’m in class with are getting murdered and going to jail — that type of thing was just normal,” he explains. “You just kind of get used to it and get numb to it.”
In his neighborhood, basketball was viewed as an outlet, a “ray of light” that provided some hope of escape. With the support and sacrifices of his mother and stepfather, Fred was able to shield himself from a lot of the negative influences around him. He stayed focused on basketball, constantly challenging his three brothers to play in the backyard. These games were aggressive and ruthless, sometimes turning bloody. As the second youngest, Fred used to get pushed around and beat up on.
It was here, in the backyard fighting for his brother’s respect, that Fred’s competitive spirit was born. He became increasingly eager to prove himself through the game. He adopted the mentality of one of his role models, Kobe Bryant, using every slight as motivation. And the slights kept coming.
“Once I finally became a really good player in high school, I wasn’t recruited the way we thought I should’ve been, so that just added to that fire,” he says.
Before Wichita State called, VanVleet, who led Auburn HS to its first Class 4A state finals appearance since 1975, had only received scholarship offers from Kent State and Northern Illinois.
“Fast forward to college – same thing, with [going undrafted],” he continues.
VanVleet guided the Shockers to nine NCAA Tournament wins in four consecutive trips and left as the school’s all time leader in assists (637) and steals (225). With him in the starting lineup, the program went an absurd 90-12. And yet, his name wasn’t called on draft night.
“Not getting the type of respect that you think you deserve,” he says. “So you just keep adding it, and the pile becomes pretty big after awhile.”
By the time Toronto decided to take a chance on him, that pile was massive. Yet the doubters never deterred VanVleet — he has always remained confident in his abilities and patient for his opportunity.
Which brings us back to the journal, to that list of goals, and to this past season.
It began as VanVleet anticipated it might. He was summoned sparingly, inserted to provide a quick spark off the pine, but usually popping in and out. An injury to Delon Wright afforded VanVleet more time, and he took full advantage. At merely 6-0, he played with an edge and energy that inspired former coach Dwane Casey to rely on him down the stretch of games. Fred relished being a pest on defense, and with his knockdown perimeter shooting, had several scoring outbursts.
“He’s giving us a lot. Most of all his toughness,” Casey said, after VanVleet erupted for a career-high 25 points in a 123-111 win over the Lakers in January. “That kid gets hit every time he goes in, hits the floor, gets up and gets back in the play. He has all my respect. Here’s a kid undrafted, comes in and makes our team. And he’s an important part of what we do just because of his toughness. Size to him is nothing. He goes in there and challenges, finds people. He’s a big piece of our physical and mental toughness.”
VanVleet blossomed into the leader of the League’s most dangerous bench unit, helping the Raptors to a franchise best 59-23 record. What was an encouraging regular season ended in disappointment, however, as Toronto was swept by the Cavaliers in the second round of the playoffs. It marked the fifth straight year that a Raptors squad with 48 or more wins did not reach the Finals.
The way it concluded was a tough pill to swallow for the 24-year-old VanVleet, who struggled to find his shot in the postseason. But another setback just means more logs on that ever-growing pile.
“Would we have liked to have gone a lot further? Hell yeah,” he tells SLAM. “But it didn’t happen and you have to keep moving on. Hold on to that for too long and you dig yourself a bigger hole. So discuss, flush it, move forward, take the experience and learn from it.”
The business side of things has been settled. After signing a two-year deal earlier this week, VanVleet will be returning to the organization and to the city that he loves. The rest of the summer will be dedicated to getting fully healthy — Fred has been dealing with a nagging shoulder injury — and refining various aspects of his game. He wants to get quicker, improve his three-pointer even more, and become a better one-on-one scorer.
While VanVleet is determined to take another leap forward, he also understands that his journey is just beginning. No rush. No pressure. There are lot of years of basketball ahead, and patience can be key at this level.
“I’m not in it for hype or highlights or Instagram videos,” he stresses. “I’m trying to play the long game and have a really long career.”
For the foreseeable future, that career will be spent in Toronto; and while questions about the potential of the present roster continue to be raised, VanVleet believes they have what it takes.
It’s that “mamba mentality” in him, that go-getting personality.
“Yeah, we got it. We got the team, we got the guys, we just got to perform,” he says, without any trace of hesitation or doubt in his tone. “I mean you don’t win 59 games if you’re not good enough.
“We had a crack at it and next year we’ll have another crack at it. And I’m confident that we’ll breakthrough.”
Alex Squadron is an Associate News Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos via Getty.