The summer runs at the UCLA campus in Los Angeles are the stuff of hoops lore. Since the days of Magic Johnson and the ‘Showtime’-era Lakers, the yearly pickup games have been a playground for the NBA’s elite and a proving ground for up-and-coming talent.
In the summer of 2017, Fred VanVleet, fresh off averaging a whopping eight minutes in 39 games as a rookie with the Toronto Raptors, joined assistant coach Rex Kalamian and a group of NBA wannabes – none of whom are still in the league – on the famous UCLA courts to suit up against the likes of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Paul George.
Once the ball was tipped, VanVleet was everywhere. Swishing three-pointers, setting up teammates with pinpoint passes and making the NBA’s best think twice before driving to the hoop. His squad ended up owning the courts, winning game after game. Kalamian rushed to his phone and called Raptors president Masai Ujiri. “This kid FVV was just the MVP in a gym full of real MVPs!” he exclaimed.
“I was a man on a mission,” VanVleet says. “I still am.”
Five years later, the 27-year-old isn’t sneaking up on anybody. This weekend, the famously undrafted point guard will make his all-star game debut, becoming just the fourth undrafted player to appear in the annual showcase – the first in 16 years since Ben Wallace in 2006. Averaging career highs in points (21.6), assists (7.0) and three-pointers made (4.0) per game while leading the NBA in minutes played (38.4), VanVleet’s earned his spot. And he’s done it by being who he’s always been.
Like their leader, the Raptors are surprising everybody but themselves this season. Despite what many pegged to be a transition year, the team is currently playoff-bound heading into the all-star break thanks in large part to the performance of VanVleet.
“Man, it’s an awesome achievement,” said head coach Nick Nurse after news of VanVleet’s all-star status spread. “It’s an incredible story. And it just keeps getting better.”
On draft night in 2016, after watching 60 other players selected, VanVleet addressed a ballroom full of family and friends: “My story don’t end here,” he assured them. “It’s just the beginning.”
Meanwhile, at least a dozen NBA teams – the same ones that had just passed on him twice – were immediately calling his agent. They were vying for a chance to bring the guard, who led his team to the NCAA tournament in all four seasons at Wichita State University, including a storybook run to the Final Four in his freshman year, into training camp.
The Raptors brass promised a legitimate opportunity to crack the roster, and that was all VanVleet needed. “A lot of people get opportunities,” he says, “but not everybody knows what to do with it.”
Beginning with the first practice, when he locked up Raptors veteran point guard Kyle Lowry full-court in scrimmage and never backed down, he spent his days establishing himself on the court and each night knelt beside his hotel bed, praying that the coaching staff would recognize what he brought to the table.
Little did he know, they already had.
“We could all see that he came with that ‘it’ factor,” Kalamian says. “He stepped into the NBA and it didn’t faze him at all. He simply continued to be who he already was: a leader.”
While it took a few seasons to carve out his role on the court – first as a backup point guard, then starting alongside Lowry – VanVleet developed into a powerful voice in the locker room almost out of the gate.
“Even though Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar [DeRozan] were our leaders on the floor, they allowed Fred into that leadership group,” Kalamian says. “It’s amazing how much they mentored that kid. They let him grow in so many ways by not stifling who he was.”
On a team led by a duo that often let their play do the talking, there was a void that he was ready to fill. “First, it’s a credit to those guys for allowing that,” VanVleet says. “Second, I think I earned that with my basketball IQ. Third, that’s always been the presence I walk around with. I don’t look at leadership as something that can be passed around or delegated. At the end of the day, leaders are naturally born.”
DeRozan agrees. “I’m not going to take credit,” the Raptors career leading scorer said earlier this year. “That was all Fred.”
VanVleet says his leadership role was also fast-tracked thanks to his unofficial title as the “Kyle Lowry whisperer,” often playing intermediary between the fiery Lowry and the Raps’ coaching staff. “Because I just care about winning, I wasn’t afraid to tell Kyle right or wrong or be a voice. Kyle could be an evil scientist the way he manipulates things, so I let him know when he was tripping and supported him when he needed it.”
“Freddie has the ability to always be the adult in the room,” says Kalamian, recalling practices, film sessions and team meetings that would, naturally over the course of an 82-game season, become heated at times. “In the face of any conflict he was always the level-headed, more mature personality on the team.”
It’s a familiar story to anyone who has shared a locker room. “He’s always been able to walk that line between coach and player,” says Phoenix Suns guard and Wichita State teammate Landry Shamet. “Fred is a balancing piece who will vouch for his guys while also being able to execute what the coaching staff has in mind.”
This season, VanVleet has had to bridge that gap more, sliding into the role of alpha dog with ease after Lowry’s off-season departure and allowing the team to barely skip a beat. He’s put in signature performances – such as his heroics in a triple-overtime thriller versus Miami, logging nearly 54 minutes – and elevated the players around him.
“I get to show my full skill set now,” he says, attributing his breakout campaign to having the ball in his hands more often and being given the opportunity to be himself on the court. On a recent call with a group of old college friends, they laughed about how he’s playing just as he did during freewheeling summertime pickup games. “Some of the things I’m doing now – pulling up from deep and letting it fly – I never imagined I’d do it in a game.”
Ahead of his all-star debut, VanVleet, whose 201 three-pointers this season is second only to Steph Curry, is slated to take part in the three-point competition. In high school, the Rockford, Ill., product finished in second-place in the statewide three-point contest, but was hesitant to take part this year until Lowry convinced him that the opportunity was too good to pass up.
He’ll have a chance to add “three-point champ” to a résumé that few besides VanVleet himself could have seen coming. He’s played a key role on a championship team, set a franchise single-game scoring record, signed the largest contract for an undrafted player in history, and made the all-star team.
“A lot,” VanVleet says. “All-defence. All-NBA. More all-stars. More championships. MVP. Finals MVP…” his voiced trails off.
“I’m not a flash in the pan who’s having this outlier season. Nah. I plan on doing this for a long time,” he says. “I don’t plan on going backwards.”
Dave Zarum is the author of NBA 75: The Definitive History and has covered the Toronto Raptors for more than a decade.