Undrafted Kansas player leaves mark on NBA

It’s hard to conceive that former Wichita State University basketball star Fred VanVleet outscored all-star Steph Curry in game 6 of the NBA finals to help the Toronto Raptors win the NBA championship.

Some would say VanVleet was fortunate to even be on an NBA team, much less contribute significant minutes and points against Golden State.

Unlike most NBA athletes, VanVleet plays basketball below the rim. He isn’t a great jumper and at 6 feet tall, he is considered to be short and slow, hardly a recipe for success among elite athletes.

VanVleet wasn’t highly sought after by many colleges, committing to Wichita State when given the chance. He and Ron Baker formed a backcourt that helped the Shockers reach a Final Four, only to be followed by an unbeaten regular season.

In spite of an outstanding college career, he went undrafted by the NBA. He finally received an offer to sign as a free agent with Toronto. His odds of being picked to stay on the roster weren’t great.

But VanVleet continued to defy the odds. And this season, his playing time continued to increase, even as he came off the bench.

It was telling that in the finals against Golden State, he played significant minutes in the second half of games.

“Fred has a heart, I don’t know how it fits into his chest,” said Marc Gasol, Toronto’s starting center. “He has a huge heart.”

Chris Bosh, a former NBA champion and Toronto Raptors player, told The Wichita Eagle: “He was playing at Wichita State a couple of years ago, that’s crazy. You can go from pretty much playing in the grasslands to competing for a NBA championship. That really can happen. That’s important for kids and people trying to accomplish their dreams. I’m always for it. I root for those guys.”

“Favorite player right there in the NBA for me,” said Toronto’s Pascal Siakam. “He’s always calm, it’s crazy. I always look at him when I’m kind of rattled and I’m mad at myself about things. I just look at him and he’s always calm. He always has that same demeanor. We always have the eye contact where it’s like he tells me to relax.”

“Fred is that type of player you love to have on your team,” said Siakam.

 During the series with Golden State, VanVleet set the NBA Finals record with 16 three-pointers made off the bench. He played 32.2 minutes per game off the bench, and essentially every second of crunch time for the Raptors.

 No single player in the NBA can stop Steph Curry, but VanVleet was credited for slowing him down. Curry finished with 21 points on 6 of 17 shooting, as VanVleet outscored him in Game 6.

 In the final quarter of the close-out game, VanVleet’s 12 points were the most scored by any player in the fourth quarter. 

After the series ended, Curry showed respect for VanVleet, saying: “He’s a gamer. He hit some bit shots. Not just in the face of pressure, he hit a lot of daggers that never seemed to panic when the ball was in his hands … And obviously he’s a champion now. So, well deserved.”

 Wichita State strength and conditioning coordinator Kerry Rosenboom said: “Fred, to me, is very athletic laterally. That’s how, in my mind, he can defend the way that he does. He’s also a very strong person; probably stronger than most people he will play against. When you combine those things, Fred, to me, is athletic defensively.

 “If people want to consider Fred an athlete or not an athlete by the normal eye test, Fred would be in the bottom 50 percent. If you look at what an athlete does when they’re on the ground and how they move, now Fred becomes an upper-half athlete, probably upper 25 percent in my mind,” said Rosenboom.

 Ten of 11 voters named Toronto star Kawhi Leonard as the NBA Finals MVP. The vote wasn’t unanimous because legendary broadcaster and former two-time NBA Coach of the Year Hubie Brown cast his MVP vote for VanVleet.

 That’s not bad for being undrafted by any team in the NBA.