From a High School star to not receiving any major college offers to leading a record-breaking college program, passed on by every team in the 2016 draft (some twice), Fred VanVleet has been overlooked at every turn. Despite all the obstacles that have been placed in front of him, VanVleet has defied all the odds to become an NBA All-Star and NBA Champion. Now VanVleet is tasked with turning around the Houston Rockets franchise after three of its worst seasons in franchise history.
VanVleet has consistently won at every level, including helping Wichita State win 120 games over his four-year career, setting records never seen in the NCAA, and helping the Toronto Raptors win their first and only NBA championship. Now VanVleet will be the Rockets' floor leader and an extension of Ime Udoka on the court as Houston looks to go from the laughingstock of the NBA to a competitive NBA team.
High School Years
Fred Van Vleet was born on February 25, 1994, in Rockford, Illinois, a few months before the Houston Rockets won their first-ever championship. VanVleet played at Auburn High School in Rockford. From the start, VanVleet was a star in the making. At Auburn, Vanvleet was an All-State First-Team selection.
He helped lead the Knights to the school's first final four in 37 years. The Knights ended up finishing third in the IHSA state tournament that year. VanVleet averaged 21.2 points his senior season, which netted him four-star recruit honors by Scout and being the 15th-ranked point guard in the country by ESPN.
VanVleet wasn't heavily recruited until his junior year, and that is when he started to show up on Mid Major schools' radar. Schools like Kent State, Northern Illinois, Drake, and Colorado State were interested in VanVleet before he decided to join Greg Marshall and the Wichita State Shockers on July 4, 2011. Remember that VanVleet was the only 2012 Rivals.com top 150 member to attend a Missouri Valley Conference school that year. That tells you that VanVleet is not afraid of a challenge.
VanVleet picked up right where he left out in High School. In his freshman season with Wichita, even though he didn't start a game in his first season, he was pivotal in the NCAA tournament as he scored 12 points and a late critical basket to defeat Ohio State and help the Shockers get to the Final Four. That made Wichita the fifth team since 1979 to make it to the Final Four as an eighth seed or lower. Even though the Shockers would fall short, it showed what would come for VanVleet.
VanVleet's sophomore year was when the nation started to take notice. VanVleet would start all 36 games and lead the Shockers to the first 31-0 regular season record in NCAA history. The number one-seeded Shockers were not able to get past the eighth-seed Kentucky Wildcats as VanVleet's last-second game-winning three bounced off the rim.
Even with the Shockers' "upset" loss in the second round to the eight-seed Wildcats, it still was the best regular season in Shockers history. It was the third most wins in NCAA history and the greatest season in Shocker's history.
VanVleet would take home (get ready, it is a long list of awards) the Missouri Valley Conference All-Conference first team and be selected as the Missouri Valley Conference Men's Basketball Player of the Year; VanVleet was a 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball All-American second-team selection by Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report, third-team selection by the Sporting News and the NABC.
VanVleet would go on to have the best scoring year of his college career in his junior season, but the Shockers would not go any further than the Sweet 16 in VanVleet's final two years. VanVleet would finish his college career averaging 10.2 points and 4.5 assists, and he finished as the Shockers' all-time leader in total assists.
VanVleet not invited to the combine and goes undrafted
Even though VanVleet helped lead his school to the best four-year run in their history, there wasn't much buzz for him going high in the draft. VanVleet was not invited to the NBA combine and didn't appear on most mock drafts, something VanVleet was well aware of at the time.
“I should have that opinion because I’m not favored high on those draft boards. Someone who is favored high would value them more. But for a guy like me, I can’t put stock into that. I’ve just got to put my head down, go to work and try to make my mark,” he said.
Despite that VanVleet was still confident, he would be drafted. So confident he threw a big party to celebrate with friends and family. That night didn't turn out the way VanVleet was hoping.
“Obviously I’m disappointed, but my story don’t end here,” VanVleet told the crowd. “It’s just the beginning. It wouldn’t really make sense for myself if I did get picked. I’ve been against the odds my whole life and it’s not going to stop now.”
VanVleet would not be drafted in 2016, as no team in the first round showed any interest, and the teams interested in the second round wanted VanVleet to spend time in the G League, which was something he did not want to do. Players like Dragen Bender, Marquese Chriss and Georgios Papagiannis, Papag? Papa John? Those guys, to say the least, probably shouldn't have been drafted instead of VanVleet.
Here are some other players taken in the 2016 draft instead of VanVleet.
Henry Ellenson, Wade Baldwin? I'm unsure if he is one of the Baldwin brothers, but I know he isn't in the NBA anymore.
Toronto Raptors take a chance on VanVleet, and it pays off.
VanVleet turned down a couple of offers from teams in the second round who wanted to draft him, as those teams wanted him to spend time-fighting his way out of the G League. He became a free agent, which turned out to be the best decision of his basketball career. As a free agent, VanVleet had more control over where he would start his career. The Raptors, who didn't have a second-round pick in the draft, decided they would take a chance on the former Shocker.
VanVleet's career didn't start with a bang, which should be no surprise considering how much he had to go through to get to this point. He only played in 37 games in his rookie season, all coming off the bench. Only averaging eight minutes a game in his first season.
The following season, he started to carve out a role on the team as his minutes jumped up to 20 per night, and he played in 76 of the 82 regular season games. VanVleet also led the Raptors in three-point shooting, but the team would fall to the co-owner of the Raptors at the time — LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers—something they had done several times in the 2010s.
That loss would signify a change for the Raptors, as long-time fan favorite Demar Derozan was traded to the Spurs for disgruntled star Kawhi Leonard. Also, coach of the year Dwane Casey was fired at the end of the season, and assistant Nick Nurse was promoted to head coach.
Championship and eventual breakup with the Raptors
The 2018-19 season would also be the year VanVleet took the step from a good bench player to a vital piece of a championship team. Even though the team still had veteran point guard Kyle Lowry, Nurse would give VanVleet his first start of his career. VanVleet would start 28 games that season as the Raptors would go on an improbable run to the NBA Finals.
VanVleet would average 14 points per game in the finals and have the most impactful game of his career in Game 6 of the Finals versus the Golden State Warriors. In that game, VanVleet scored 22 points, with 12 coming in the crucial fourth quarter, as the Raptors defeated the Warriors 114-110 to take the series 4-2.
In the 2019-20 season, despite dealing with injuries and only playing in 54 regular season games, VanVleet would solidify his position as a starter, as he started in all 54 games he played in. With the departure of NBA Finals MVP, Kwahi Leonard VanVleet took on a more significant role on the team. That led to him averaging a career-high 17.6 points per game. The Raptors, however, were unable to defend their championship as they fell to the Boston Celtics in the second round.
At the start of the 2020-21 season, the Raptors and VanVleet agreed to a four-year, $85 million contract. Pretty remarkable for a player that wasn't even invited to the combine and almost entirely ignored on draft night.
VanVleet's career continued to soar, as he averaged 19.6 points in the 2020-21 season and a career-high 20.3 in the 2021-22 season. In 2022, VanVleet became the first undrafted player since Ben Wallace in 2006 to be named an All-Star. It was a career year for VanVleet, and he notched his first-ever triple-double with 37 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists on January 7 versus Utah – the most points scored in a triple-double in franchise history.
Even though the Raptors would never return to their previous high of NBA Finals, VanVleet had established himself as one of the best two-way point guards in the NBA. The two sides could not come together on a new contract, and with the team having a disappointing end to their 2022-23 season, it seemed like a parting of ways was best for both sides. This led him to sign a max-level contract with the Houston Rockets for three years and $130 million this offseason.
VanVleet and the Rockets
That leads us back to where we started. VanVleet is now tasked with turning around a franchise that hasn't won more than 22 games since the 2019-20 season. According to everyone in the front office, the Rockets have entered phase two, which means that developing while losing is not good enough.
VanVleet is now the Rockets' floor general and the coach on the court. With the addition of Dillon Brooks, the Rockets are looking to go from bottom feeders to competitive and eventually back as one of the best teams in the league.
It all starts with Fred VanVleet. Who knows, a thing is two about starting at the bottom and fighting your way up.
Make sure to subscribe and to check out my player profile video on Fred VanVleet, dropping soon on the Rocket Fuel YouTube channel.