Fred Vanvleet: The Player Who Bet on Himself

Fred Vanvleet’s inspiring and unusual journey to the NBA.

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As the confetti fell from the rafters, the undrafted Fred VanVleet held up the Larry O’Brian trophy triumphantly. The 6’1” guard who was all but written off was now an NBA champion. VanVleet became a key player off the bench for the Raptors in the 2018-2019 season, averaging 11.0 points, 4.8 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game. He was crucial for the team’s championship run, coming up with numerous clutch shots and big plays down the stretch en route to the Raptors’ first championship in franchise history.

In the following season, with Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard leaving the Raptors, VanVleet played a much larger role on the team. He averaged a career high 17.6 points per game, which was the most by an undrafted player since 2006. He was also a key distributor, averaging 6.6 assists per game. Though he lacks height, VanVleet is a tenacious defender and averaged 1.9 steals per game, good for third in the league. VanVleet has proven to be a top point guard and one of the most coveted free agents this offseason.

But VanVleet’s road to the NBA was anything but easy. VanVleet played four years at Wichita State, a top basketball school, where he greatly contributed to the team’s success. During his senior season, he was an AP All-American honorable mention. But, NBA scouts overlooked VanVleet because he was 6’1”, a bit chubby, and, compared to other players, not the fastest.. Though VanVleet was never the tallest or most athletic person in the gym, he proved his place in the league. He recalls: “I had at least six to eight really, really, really good workouts where I was the best player in the gym.” He thought some teams would draft him, possibly even in the first round.

On the night of the draft, VanVleet and dozens of his friends and family waited for his name to be called to celebrate a monumental night in his career. Instead, VanVleet went undrafted. There were teams who wanted to draft him in the second round. Interested teams told him that he would likely be stashed away in the G League and that he probably would not make the main roster. They told him he wouldn’t be competing for a roster spot in training camp if they picked him. So what did VanVleet do? He told some teams not to draft him. Instead of settling for little money with a team that didn’t believe in him, he requested to opt out of the league, insisting that he would prove everyone wrong.

“Let’s roll the dice,” VanVleet said. After the draft, he went to Las Vegas for the 2016 NBA Summer League. VanVleet led the Raptors 905 to a G League Championship and managed to earn a contract, a two-year minimum, from the Raptors in 2017. VanVleet finished the season averaging 8.6 points, 3.2 assists, and 2.4 rebounds in 76 games and signed a two-year deal for $18 million. By going undrafted, he likely made more money in his first four years in the league than many of the first round picks. VanVleet could’ve easily taken the safer route by being drafted late in the second round, but instead bet on himself, and it paid off. He went from a solid bench player to one of the most coveted players in this year’s free agent class, winning a championship along the way.

VanVleet inked a four-year, $85 million deal to stay with the Toronto Raptors this offseason and now has the most expensive contract for an undrafted NBA player in the history of the league. To most, VanVleet’s story is an underdog story of a player struggling to make a roster. In reality, it is a story of a confident player who bet on himself.