Wednesday, May 25 2022

Fred VanVleet isn’t supposed to be an All-Star. Undrafted players are supposed to be reserves, role players at best. Definitely not stars.

VanVleet has never cared much for labels or rankings. All he wanted was an opportunity to prove himself.

“The funny part about my story is that the confidence and the belief were always there,” VanVleet told USA TODAY Sports. “I always thought that I could be an All-Star. I didn’t know what that would look like or I didn’t know the steps or how fast it would happen. But I just have this unwavering belief in myself, and a lot of that comes from how hard I work.

“I’ve dedicated my life to this sport since about 5 years old. It took a little bit longer to pay off than for some people, but it sure is paying off now.”

VanVleet could – and perhaps should – make his first All-Star team when the reserves, as determined by coaches, are announced tonight. He would be just the fourth undrafted player in the NBA’s modern era to make the All-Star game, joining John Starks, Brad Miller and 2021 Pro Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Ben Wallace.

It won’t be easy. There is plenty of competition. Two guards are guaranteed reserve spots then there are two wild cards which can go to backcourt or frontcourt players. Chicago’s Zach LaVine, Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Brooklyn’s James Harden and Miami’s Tyler Herro and VanVleet are potential reserves at the guard spot in the East.

Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) wasn't a high draft pick like Ja Morant (12), but he could join Morant as an NBA ALl-Star this season.Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) wasn't a high draft pick like Ja Morant (12), but he could join Morant as an NBA ALl-Star this season.

“It would be great to get the recognition,” VanVleet said. “I’ve done the work, and we’ll see what happens. I will not lose sleep if it goes a certain way because I don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon. And I hopefully this is my year to get in there. But you know, what’s for me is for me, and we’ll figure out the rest later.”

VanVleet has a case. The sixth-year guard from Wichita State is having his best NBA season, averaging 21.5 points, seven assists, 4.7 rebounds – all career highs – while shooting 39.1% on 3-pointers. Of players who take at least two catch-and-shoot 3s per game, VanVleet is one of the best, shooting 46.7%.

He’s a significant reason why the Raptors are in position to make the playoffs a season after losing Kyle Lowry to the Miami Heat in the offseason. In two wins against Miami in the past week, the 6-1 VanVleet scored 40 points and had 14 assists, eight rebounds, four steals, two blocks.

“A lot of it is probably opportunity, right?” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The landscape always is changing. And this year, he ends up without Kyle running alongside him, so he had to take a big step up, right? A lot of responsibility there. And he’s done it.”

VanVleet’s emergence into All-Star territory isn’t a complete surprise despite going undrafted in 2016. In the two previous seasons, VanVleet averaged 19.6 and 17.6 points, and his play in the 2019 Finals (14 points per game on 40% 3-point shooting and solid defense on Golden State’s Steph Curry) earned him a Finals MVP vote from ESPN analyst Hubie Brown after the Raptors won the title. He scored a career-high 54 points last season.

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His journey to the NBA and then from NBA to All-Star caliber is two-fold. VanVleet was good in high school in Rockford, Ill., and made all-state teams. But he was No. 83 on ESPN’s top 100 list his senior year of high school and committed to Wichita State. He wasn’t on many mock drafts and certainly not in the first-round following his four-year college career.

“I couldn’t figure out the rankings in high school. And I can’t figure out the draft boards in college,” he said.

The Raptors signed him to an undrafted free agent deal, and VanVleet spent his rookie season between the Raptors and their G League affiliate.

“My goal was always longevity, even being undrafted,” VanVleet said. “I never looked at it like I would have a short career because I was undrafted. I actually thought that was going to help me because, instead of starting at the top and having to climb, I could just take incremental steps to get there, which I’ve done. I’ve gotten better every year. And here I am in year six. I’ve continued to get better each year and that’s the goal.”

VanVleet is easy to root for. The story of his ascension is rooted in the underdog mentality. Overlooked. Undersized. Playing his teen years in Rockford, in the shadow of much more hyped Chicago players. Underrecruited. Mid-major. Four-year player. Undrafted.

“People in general admire the guys that have to take a little more winding road or the road less traveled or whatever you want to call it, right?” Nurse said.

In that way, Nurse and VanVleet are similar. Nurse coached overseas in small English pro leagues just to get head coaching experience and then spent time in the G League and then in the NBA as an assistant.

“Any team you’d put in front of me, I loved coaching them, and I just wanted to try to get better and better and better all the time,” Nurse said. “And I think he probably is similar.”

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As a then-Raptors assistant, Nurse saw potential in VanVleet.

“I don’t ever want to sound like I’m taking credit for it,” Nurse said. “But I saw a really special guy here from like day one. I was like, ‘This dude is smart, tough, competitive – all those intangible things that everybody’s always trying to figure out what they are like.’ He’s got them, right.”

By his third season, VanVleet was a valuable contributor on a championship team, and by his sixth season, VanVleet’s offensive and defensive prowess have made him an All-Star candidate.

The growth has not been without struggle. VanVleet recently said his shot selection has been a journey, searching for what makes a good shot in an evolving league. He didn’t have offensive freedom in college and when he shot long 2s when he got to the NBA, coaches pulled him aside and asked, “Why are you taking those?”

Nurse said VanVleet initially hugged the 3-point line and wanted him to expand his range while still driving to the basket and making mid-range shots. VanVleet has grown accustomed to launching shots, taking a career-high 17.5 per game this season.

“Basically he’s at a stage now where we’re trying to cut him loose to find anything that he can do.,” Nurse said. “He’s that valuable, that type of player for us.”

Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fred VanVleet once got an NBA Finals MVP vote. Is All-Star nod next?

Source: Yahoo Sports


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