In a recent Toronto Raptors overtime win against the Detroit Pistons, a posterizing dunk from DeMar DeRozan led all highlight reels. The game-winning play didn’t come from four-time All-Star DeRozan, though. Driving to the hoop and drawing in defenders, DeRozan had sharpshooter C.J. Miles to his right, and reserve point guard Fred VanVleet to his left. He dished the ball to VanVleet. With zero hesitation and the clock ticking down, VanVleet calmly rose into his shot and drilled a 20-foot jumper that swished through the net with 1.1 seconds remaining. Game over. Raptors win.
After the game, in the visitors’ locker room, DeRozan said there wasn’t any doubt in his mind that VanVleet would make the shot. Just two years after going undrafted in the 2015 NBA Draft, thanks to a breakout season that was unexpected to everyone outside of the Raptors organization, VanVleet has earned the trust and respect of Raptors head coach Dwane Casey and his staff. Equally as important, he’s become a valued leader in the locker room for young players and vets alike despite this being just his sophomore season where he is averaging 19.6 minutes per game.
“Once I got on the team I was trying to annoy Kyle [Lowry], pick him up full court, get under his skin. I fouled him like 10 times in a row one day in a scrimmage.”—VanVleet
“I got my first impression of him in summer league,” says Miles. ”I always thought he was tough, hard-nosed and he played the right way. When I got here, it was true.”
Miles says his bond with VanVleet was instant. The two became first-time fathers around the same time, and Miles was a shooter wanting to develop chemistry with the point guard he shares time with in Toronto’s “bench mob” lineup. They met just prior to VanVleet’s second season with the Raptors, when the 24-year-old point guard knew his role on the team was secure. Had Miles joined the team a year prior, immediately after VanVleet went undrafted and needed to prove his skills to earn his first NBA contract, that connection might have taken some time.
“When Fred first got here, he reminded me a lot of a young Kyle Lowry—just the toughness, the reckless abandon he plays with is a lot like Kyle. They’re very similar in their style of play.”—Dwane Casey
“I was a complete [expletive][those first summer workouts],” says VanVleet. “Not trying to be anyone’s friend. Not trying to talk to anyone. I knew Jakob [Poeltl] and Pascal [Siakam] a little bit, but I was trying to win every game, I was trying to do extra stuff to get on the team.”
When he did make the team, he started to open up and develop bonds with his teammates away from the floor. With Toronto’s younger players spending much of the offseason working out in Toronto, then Las Vegas, and then in Vancouver, always together, they naturally became extremely close. On the court, though, it was more of the same competitive VanVleet. As one of the final guys to get his contract guaranteed, he was fourth in line on the point guard depth chart during the 2016-17 season. The real work had just began.
“Once I got on the team I was trying to annoy Kyle [Lowry], pick him up full court, get under his skin,” recalls VanVleet. “I fouled him like 10 times in a row one day in a scrimmage.”
After the Raptors traded backup point guard Cory Joseph to the Indiana Pacers in the offseason, VanVleet saw an opportunity for his role to expand. He and fellow reserve point guard Delon Wright have been fantastic for Toronto this season and the Raptors bench is one of the best in the League. VanVleet credits the way they pushed each other with helping each of them to flourish this season.
“With Delon, I was trying to kick his ass every day last year because I want to take his minutes,” says VanVleet. “I’m trying to kick his ass every day, but at the same time, when practice is over there’s no beef. What ended up happening is we play together this year and we’re great friends already because of the stuff we did last year. Those relationships grow over time.”
In the same way that VanVleet appreciates the competition between he and Wright, Lowry appreciates VanVleet for constantly keeping him on his toes at practice. DeRozan regularly compliments his work ethic and commends his toughness, saying VanVleet is aleady “one of those teammates that will go down in my book as one of my favorites.” Few second-year players have earned the praise and respect that VanVleet has from the Raptors co-captains. The respect that flows throughout Toronto’s locker room is one of the reasons VanVleet believes the team is excelling this season.
Toronto currently sits at 55 wins, one short of the franchise’s highwater mark of 56 from two seasons ago. The remaining seven games on the schedule is no cake walk (they play the Celtics twice and the Cavaliers once) but with the way the Raptors have been playing all season, they are assured of setting a new regular-season benchmark. The lion’s share of the credit goes to their All-Star backcourt of DeRozan and Lowry and Casey’s job this season has him in line for Coach of the Year, but the reserve backcourt of VanVleet and Wright have justified the spotlight to the stars and the coach. In many of those wins, the team has not only finished with reserves on the floor, but played the bench for the entire fourth quarter. VanVleet and Wright are the team leaders in fourth-quarter minutes. For the season, VanVleet is averaging 8.7 PPG, 3.2 APG while shooting .414 from three; Wright is mirroring the output with 8.1/2.9/.375.
“[The chemistry] is special,” explains VanVleet . “It just happened naturally. This organization is special in a sense that everybody is treated the same way. They treated me the same from my pre-draft workout until today. It stood out when I got here. They were really nice and I didn’t get it. It’s not like that everywhere else.”
One of the most important traits that will give a player mileage with Casey is toughness. After almost two years with VanVleet, Casey is still quick to marvel at the fearlessness his backup point guard possesses. That mentality, coupled with VanVleet’s deep-rooted desire to be on the floor in crunch time, with the ball in his hands—to make the correct read or take the big shot himself—reminds Toronto’s coach of another familiar face.
“When Fred first got here, I said that, that he reminded me a lot of a young Kyle Lowry,” says Casey. “Just the toughness, the reckless abandon he plays with is a lot like Kyle. They’re very similar in their style of play.”
That particular brand of toughness is paying dividends for the Raptors this season. Less than 48 hours after VanVleet’s game-winner against the Pistons, he was bodying up Chris Paul in the backcourt during the fourth quarter of Toronto’s game against the the Houston Rockets. He pressured Paul, chased him, caused him to lose the ball and forced him into a turnover. He was the only Raptors player to play the entire fourth quarter. After the game, a 108-105 Raptors victory that snapped Houston’s 17-game winning streak, Paul succinctly summed up VanVleet’s impact on the final score: “He controlled the game.”
How does a player that went undrafted just two seasons ago become the player that is credited as the difference-maker by one of the smartest and best point guards in NBA history? Allow 13-year-veteran Miles to explain.
“Our league is about opportunity,” says Miles. “Guys don’t get here that can’t play. That’s impossible. It’s about opportunity to be able to play to your strength. When you get that chance, depending on how much you work, that’s how you flourish. Talent might get you to the stage, but it won’t keep you on it. It might get you to the side of the stage, it might even get you on the stage, on draft night, but that can be it for some players. I think [opportunities] are about who deserves it. Whoever is deserving.”
Miles came to the NBA straight out of high school. He’s seen countless players get drafted and then fade into obscurity, out of the League in the blink of an eye. When reminded that VanVleet didn’t get to walk across the stage and shake the NBA commissioner’s hand, he shakes his head and smiles. Sitting in his locker, shortly before the Raptors pick up another home victory, he swivels his chair around, nodding toward VanVleet’s locker on the other side of the room.
“The right things, always find the right people.”