One of the NBA’s recent feel-good stories was restricted free agent Fred VanVleet re-signing with the Toronto Raptors on a two-year deal worth $18 million. While some of the free agents who received big paydays expected a lucrative contract from a young age, VanVleet’s success wasn’t a given and he was surrounded by doubters for much of his life.
“Everybody counted me out,” the point guard told HoopsHype last year. “Nobody believed that this could happen to me; they always had something to say. It’s been that way my whole life… They always pointed out the negatives. It’s good to know that I wasn’t crazy for believing in myself.”
VanVleet went undrafted in 2016 and had to fight in training camp to earn the Raptors’ final roster spot. After spending much of his rookie season in the G League, he became a significant contributor as a sophomore. VanVleet averaged 8.6 points, 3.2 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 0.9 steals in 20 minutes, while shooting 41.4 percent from three (on 3.4 attempts per game). Per-36-minutes, that’s 15.5 PPG, 5.8 APG, 4.4 RPG and 1.6 SPG. Toronto had arguably the NBA’s best bench last season and VanVleet played a key role.
HoopsHype caught up with VanVleet to discuss his free-agency process, his breakout campaign, his offseason training, Toronto’s coaching change, recent trade rumors involving the Raptors and much more.
UPDATE: The Raptors acquired Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first-round pick shortly after we spoke for this interview. VanVleet texted the following quote in response to the trade.
FVV: It’s sad to lose my guys. I have genuine love for both DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. It’s hard to comment on this without saying the wrong things. As a player, you always want to try to win with the team you have. I’m a big fan of Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, though. Hopefully all the noise is just noise and Kawhi is all in.
Overall, how was your free-agency experience? I know restricted free agency can be tough for some guys, but it seemed to be pretty easy and quick for you.
Fred VanVleet: It was a good experience. I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. But, like you said, it went by pretty easy and fast. It was over with pretty quick. I was kind of anxious going into it, just not knowing what to expect or how things might shake out. I knew where I wanted to be and I had a feeling what Toronto was going to do, but you never really know until it’s actually time to get a deal. Then, once [the free-agency period started], it wrapped up pretty quick.
Were there any surprises? Everyone imagines free agency, but then sometimes it’s different than they expected. Did any aspect surprise you?
FVV: You never really know what’s going to happen until you’re actually in it. I had been given some indications [that certain teams would pursue me] from different people around the league. We had a network of people around the league so we could find out what other teams might be interested. But, again, you never really know [if the interest is real] until they actually throw an offer at you when free agency officially starts.
There were some surprises right at midnight, right after free agency started, but nothing serious enough to where I wanted to change my plan and not re-sign with the Raptors. It was flattering; it’s always nice to be wanted and to see teams calling and inquiring about you and trying to find a way to add you to their team. But, like I said, it wasn’t anything substantial enough and it didn’t happen fast enough for me to stray from my plan [of re-signing with Toronto]. If I wanted to explore those options, I would’ve had to put the Raptors’ things on hold and stall them out to see if these other things would fall into place and that just didn’t really make sense to me.
Last year, you had a breakout season and I was really impressed. Was that big leap forward just a matter of getting a bigger opportunity to play or did you make any kind of changes behind-the-scenes?
FVV: I think it was a little bit of both. I definitely think I get better every year because I really put a lot of work in during the summer. But, at the same time, I did get the opportunity to show what I can do. A lot of times in this league, you’re only going to be as good as your role [allows you to be] – aside from the superstar guys, the franchise guys. I was given an opportunity to have a big role on this team and play a lot of minutes, and then the rest of it was my job to go out there and perform and I was able to do that.
When you’d launch a three, it seemed like you felt every shot was going in. I loved seeing your confidence on display this past year. How much more comfortable and confident are you feeling now versus in your rookie year when you were adjusting to the NBA?
FVV: It’s like a full 180° (laughs). And it’s not like I didn’t have any confidence when I entered the league. But playing spot minutes and entering games at the end of a blowout is a huge difference from being the sixth man on the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference and being out there to close games with the main guys. I was trusted to take big shots, to make big plays. You can run farther when your leash is longer. And when you’re not being snatched out of the game every time you do something wrong, that allows your confidence to grow and you to have a little bit more freedom.
When we last talked, you mentioned that because you had to overcome so many obstacles and hear from so many doubters, it made it even sweeter when you made an NBA roster. Now, with this $18 million deal, you’ve taken that to another level. Do you still find that it’s more enjoyable given everything you’ve endured?
FVV: Yeah, that’s just a part of my story. If you look back at my entire life, that’s how it’s always been. [People have doubted], but then everything has always worked out. It all goes together. This is no different, so I’m not really surprised. I’ve been thinking about this happening and expecting to be where I am for as long as I can remember; it was everyone else who didn’t see it coming. Now, it’s just so sweet to be in this moment. I’ve always believed that if you give your all to this game and play the game the right way, you’ll be rewarded for that. And that’s what has really been happening to me lately.
As for the doubters, I know some people use doubt as fuel, but what’s more important to me is proving people right – the people who did believe in me and showed me love and gave me an opportunity. I want to prove them right and show them that they made the right call, with the Raptors being a perfect example. That’s always been my biggest motivation. I like to view it that way rather than focusing on the negative. I want to make the believers and supporters proud more than I want to make the doubters feel foolish.
It seems like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan really emerged as strong mentors for you. How much have they helped you and how nice is it having two stars to learn from in this backcourt?
FVV: They’ve been vital to my success. I owe my NBA career to those guys. They’re such great guys and great leaders by example, but then to also take me under their wing and treat me as their little brother? To go out of their way to teach me on the court and off the court? They did that. And all that stuff, they didn’t have to do that, you know? They chose to do that. I owe a ton of my success from my first two years in the league to those guys. They were incredible. They’re amazing players, obviously, but they’re also so real and so humble. It meant so much that they went out of their way to look out for me and help me when nobody told them to do that and they didn’t have to do that. It was just a genuine thing that they did, a genuine thing that happened. I’m super grateful for everything they’ve done for me.
That’s amazing to hear how much they’ve helped you. Last year, you made such huge strides. This offseason, what aspects of your game are you working on and trying to improve?
FVV: I’m going into this summer with the same focus as last year. I want to come back next season as a more complete player, so I’m working on everything. There’s not one specific thing I focus on more than the others. I try to break it up and work on different facets of my game at different times. Right now, at this particular time, I’m working on a lot of mid-range, floaters and finding that little short game. It’s not something I use too much in our offense, they aren’t shots I’ve taken too much, but it’s still a really nice thing to have. That’s what I’m working on right now. I’m going to continue to work on my three-pointer throughout the summer. I shot a great percentage [from three], but that percentage can still go up and my makes can go up. To do that, I need to keep getting reps up so I’ll be shooting a lot. I’ll be on my bike, to make sure I’m in the best shape possible. I’m just going to keep fine-tuning my game so that I can go out there and hoop. I want to take that next step by continuing to make gradual improvements in every aspect of my game.
I want to talk about Nick Nurse, your new head coach. You’ve obviously worked with him already since he was an assistant in Toronto. What are you expecting from Coach Nurse as he steps into this larger role, and what’s your relationship like with him?
FVV: It’s a new voice. It’s a new energy. Obviously, we’ll do a lot of the same stuff, but he’s going to bring his own twist to everything. I’m expecting him to do some experimental type of stuff. He’s not a conventional coach. He tries to think outside of the box sometimes. We’re going to win. We have a good team; we have virtually the same team back and the relationships are there. Coach Nurse is familiar with everyone on the roster. I think it’ll be a seamless transition.
Dwane Casey is the only head coach you’ve played for since entering the league, so how tough was it to see the organization part ways with him?
FVV: It was tough. I love Coach Casey and I owe a lot to him too. He gave me a chance, gave me an opportunity. He brought me to training camp from summer league, and then I made the team from training camp. Then, I went from not really playing to becoming a focal point [of the second unit]. I owe a lot of that to Coach Casey. I have a lot of love for him and a lot of respect for him. You never want to see any of your coaches get fired, but that’s the nature of the business that we’re in. You have to put on your big boy pants and move on. He landed on his feet in Detroit and he’ll be just fine because he’s a hell of a coach. Now, for us, it’s time for us to move on and focus on our new coach.
Another part of this business is trade rumors. There have been some rumors about Toronto and different players potentially being available. You just signed your new deal, so you probably aren’t as worried, but what’s your approach to trade rumors in general when people are talking about your team? Do you just try to block them out?
FVV: Nah, I see all the stuff. I’m not one of those guys who’s going to sit here and lie and act like I don’t read the stuff that’s online. I see it. It is what it is. You just can’t let it affect your play or your mindset. And you have to realize that it comes and it goes. A lot of it is bullsh** and a lot of it has some substance to it. You try to weed out the real stuff, but you really just have to see what happens. There’s nothing you can really do about it, so there’s no point in getting all excited or anxious about it. It doesn’t have any effect on what I do, but I definitely see it. Everybody sees it. But it’s all just rumors until it’s real, and you don’t have to deal with it until it’s real. As long as they’re just rumors, they come and they go.
You aren’t from Canada. For people who don’t know, you were born and raised in Illinois. But now that you’ve spent a significant amount of time there, what has your Canadian experience been like?
FVV: It’s pretty similar in terms of the cities and the lifestyle. Like, you wouldn’t even know that you were in another country [if you didn’t know better]. But here, the people are probably a little bit nicer, the cities are a little bit cleaner and it’s just a different culture. Up here, the people are learning about different cultures from the time that they’re born. It’s kind of like the nice, big cities we have in America without all the bullsh**. Not that there aren’t issues up here; it’s just not dealt with the same way that we do back home [in America]. It’s been unbelievable being here for two years. It’s honestly a big reason why I wanted to re-sign. I love being here. I love living here. You can raise a family here. Toronto is just such a beautiful city and the people are great. The fans are crazy too, so it’s hard to beat.
Now that you have a bigger role on the team and you’re signed to a multi-year deal, are you excited that your odds of being name-dropped on a Drake track are increasing?
FVV: Oh man, that would be crazy. (laughs) He’s obviously one of my favorite artists and he’s a really cool dude. I’m not pressing that kind of stuff, though. If it happens, it happens. If it don’t, it don’t.
Vleet rhymes with a lot, so we’ll see.
Now that you’ve signed the two-year, $18 million deal, have you decided what your first big purchase is going to be once you get those checks?
FVV: To be honest, there’s nothing that I really want. There’s nothing that’s burning a hole in my pocket or anything. I already bought my parents a house, so that’s done. That was the big thing for me. I may buy a watch or something small like that. But other than that, I really like to just save my money. I like to put it away. But if I had to pick something to spend my money on today, I’d probably just buy a watch and put the rest away.
With LeBron James going to the Los Angeles Lakers, a lot of people are talking about how the Eastern Conference is relatively wide open. As a player on an East contender, how nice is to see so many star players in the Western Conference and how exciting is that the East path to the NBA Finals may have gotten a little easier?
FVV: I think that’s for you guys to talk about more than anything. I think the same thing was being said last year when the Cavs sucked in January and then all of a sudden, they made all of those trades and kept getting better and better and better. At some point in the year – probably around January or February – you guys will pick a favorite again in the East, whether that’s us or somebody else. And then the storylines will go from there. But, honestly, as players we don’t get into that stuff. We’re just focused on the task at hand and pressing forward. I keep telling everybody, none of these East teams will be easy to match-up against for anybody when it comes time for the Semi-Finals and Conference Finals. You’re going to have to go through some great teams to get to the NBA Finals. While there’s some merit to LeBron not being in the East because you do avoid a once-in-a-generation player, at the same time, a lot of these teams in the East have great players in their own right.
A lot of people are saying that the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers are the favorites in the East now. Do you ever use that as motivation – the fact that you guys aren’t being mentioned as much?
FVV: Yeah, a little bit. A little bit. But, look, if you’re still looking for external motivation at this point, you’re probably in the wrong business. It’s something we hear, but you just have to go out there and do your job. To be honest, [I don’t care what’s projected]. This isn’t new, especially in Toronto. It’s not like all of a sudden, people are starting to count the Raptors out. It’s been like that for however long now – five, six years. We hear the same doubts, the same storylines. People say we’ll be great during the regular season and then once it’s time for the playoffs, the stories will come out again about “how we’re going to choke” and all this other stuff. Again, that’s not stuff we concern ourselves with. We’re just going to go out there and do our job and prove ourselves right instead prove other people wrong.