After a terrific four-year stint at Wichita State, Fred VanVleet’s future was up in the air. He wasn’t receiving much interest entering the 2016 NBA draft. He would turn 23 years old during his rookie season and that was a disadvantage in a draft process that rewards potential over experience. On draft night, he threw a party for his family and friends, but ultimately didn’t hear his name called.
However, the Toronto Raptors expressed interest in signing him and he agreed to join their summer league squad. Fast forward to training camp and VanVleet won the team’s final roster spot. This season has been an excellent learning experience for Van Vleet, who has appeared in 32 games for the Raptors and 15 games for the team’s D-League affiliate (averaging 16.4 points, 7.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals). He has seen his playing time increase a bit this month, with head coach Dwane Casey playing him in 10 games (and giving him 20 or more minutes in three of those contests).
HoopsHype caught up with VanVleet to discuss his transition from college to the NBA, his experiences in Toronto, how it feels to prove his doubters wrong, whether he gets Drake’s music early and more.
How much do you feel you’ve improved from the start of your rookie season to now?
Fred VanVleet: I’ve gradually improved, game by game and practice by practice. As a young player, any experience you get is beneficial – even if it’s learning from mistakes. Getting thrown into the fire can be helpful. I feel like I’ve improved my individual game a lot – things like my shooting, decision-making and not being a liability defensively. I take a lot of pride in my development and I think it’s gone pretty well so far.
You played four years of college basketball at Wichita State and, at 23, you’re older than most rookies. A lot of these guys are teenagers. How has your experience helped you?
FVV: For one, I’m more mature. You have to be able to handle this day in and day out. If you aren’t right mentally, if you haven’t prepared and put yourself in position to succeed, you’re going to struggle when you get out there no matter how talented you are. You have to be ready to go and be mature. I think the things I went through helped me. For example, I went through an injury last year, which gave me a new perspective altogether. I may not have the NBA experience yet, but I have life experience. I was already a man, from the moment I got here.
You’re learning from two star guards in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. How nice is it to have them in the backcourt with you?
FVV: It’s great. I think we have a great mixture of guys. We have the All-Stars, Kyle and DeMar, who have done it for a long time. We have a lot of other veterans who have done it for a long time too. Then, we have young guys like Norm Powell, who played some last year and is sort of in a similar situation, and myself. It’s great to have both. I’ve just tried to soak up as much knowledge from those guys as I can.
What has surprised you the most as you adjusted to the NBA? Was there anything you didn’t expect?
FVV: There wasn’t much that I didn’t expect, it’s just different to see it up close and on daily basis. You see the different injuries that happen throughout the year and there are things like the travel schedule that are more intense than college. You hear about those things and you know to expect it, but actually going through it is different.
How have you adjusted to Toronto, and what do you think of the city?
FVV: I love it. It’s been great. It’s cold, but I grew up just outside of Chicago so I’m fine with that. The city is great and I love the people. And being an NBA player here, it’s crazy the attention you get – even as an undrafted rookie (laughs). Trying to get my friends and family here was a bit of a hassle at first, but other than that, I love everything about it. I feel like they’ve embraced me here.
Did Drake hook you up with More Life early?
FVV: Nah, I don’t have that plug yet (laughs). I’m pretty sure DeMar and Kyle got it early, but I can wait like everybody else. It’s all good!
You mentioned going undrafted. What was your experience on draft night, and how validating was it to fight for and ultimately win your roster spot?
FVV: It does give you some personal satisfaction, proving [you belong in the league] when you’ve known you’re good enough for your whole life and you know all the work that you put in and everybody counted you out. Nobody believed that this could happen to me; they always had something to say. And it’s been that way my whole life. They’d say, “Oh, he can play, but there’s this, this and this.” They always pointed out the negatives. It’s good to know that I wasn’t crazy for believing in myself. It’s nice confirmation.
Draft night was what it was. Me and my agent weren’t expecting a whole lot. We had a couple phone calls about different situations, but I knew what it was going in. I threw a party anyway. I knew there was a good chance I wouldn’t get picked, but I threw a party anyway because I looked at it as a celebration of my life up to that point – the four years I put in [at Wichita State] and even back to high school. I wanted to celebrate the grind that I had put in and mark that moment in time where it gets real now, that I’m fighting for my livelihood now. It was a good moment for me to stop and re-focus.
Do you also have a desire to show teams that they were wrong for passing on you?
FVV: Honestly, I’m not focused on that. I’ve always been someone that focuses on the love more than the hate. I’m trying to make Toronto feel good about taking a chance on me rather than make other teams feel bad; that’s how I see it. There’s some bitterness and a revenge factor when you go up against certain teams that passed on you, but I know that I’m lucky to have an organization that gave me an opportunity and I’m trying to prove them right. I want to make them look smart for taking a risk on me. That’s the way I approach it.
There’s that maturity. Finally, what has the coaching staff told you they want to see from you and how has your relationship with the coaches developed?
FVV: I love the coaching staff and they’ve been great about communicating where I’m at in my development and what I need to do. Early in the year, you figure out your role and what to expect. My role is just to try to change the game anytime I check in, bringing energy and a spark off the bench. I think one of the best things about being more mature [than most rookies] is that they haven’t had to give me a ton of directions. I can play and just figure things out. I obviously need to improve aspects of my individual game, like finishing in the lane, but I think some of the things I need to improve on just come with getting reps. It’s trial and error, and you can’t really speed up the process. You just have to put in time to get better at those things. I want to improve every day. I’m a worker; I try to come in early and stay late every day.