Fred VanVleet isn’t one to take things lying down.
Unless smothered by his two children as he plays games with them around the house, VanVleet has keenly avoided taking the cards that are dealt to him, laying back and accepting whatever fate comes his way. After going undrafted, he knuckled down and competed his way onto the Toronto Raptors roster. Firmly entrenched behind Kyle Lowry and Delon Wright in the point guard rotation, VanVleet worked his way to slotting alongside Wright as a key cog of the 2017-18 Bench Mob.
Even last year, VanVleet was between a rock and a hard place in the playoffs, appearing borderline unplayable as he struggled to get his shot off against the length of the Philadelphia 76ers. Things appeared grim through the first three games of the Eastern Conference Finals, but he kept knocking on the door until it came down, and when it did, the floodgates opened and he finished with a Finals MVP vote. But what happens when VanVleet’s only choice is to sit back and wait?
“I find stuff to do, I don’t put myself in a box like that,” VanVleet said from his home in Rockford, Illinois. “Basketball’s not the only thing I like, it’s definitely the thing I like the most, but now just spending more time with my kids. I’ve probably put together more toys and slides and desks and chairs than I would like to in the last couple weeks—being a handyman around the house—but spending time with them, with the family, and relaxing.”
VanVleet has also identified this as a unique opportunity to focus on his business portfolio. While Canadians will be familiar with his Bet On Yourself brand and his Jif peanut butter commercials alongside teammate Pascal Siakam, VanVleet shot a commercial with American Express in the United States before the 2019-20 season and signed with And1 just a few months ago. He has his own store in Rockford as well, one that has been passing out lunches in an effort to support healthcare employees and “essential workers” in general. As far as a significant donation is concerned, VanVleet is in the process of understanding where his money will best go served. Rockford is a city within Winnebago County, and the entire region with a population in excess of 280,000 has a total of 207 cases and five deaths. VanVleet said he could’ve rushed home and donated money immediately to look good, but he feels that when the time is right, money in the right place will go a lot further.
"People’s health and well-being and frame of mind is a lot more important than a couple million here or there because we’re all filthy rich compared to where we came from in the first place, so, I don’t think anyone’s crying over it."
That calculated approach is also allowing him to stay even keeled about his future earnings, as his upcoming free agency has gone from what would have been a long-term contract bonanza to dicey, at best. NBA commissioner Adam Silver revealed that the league’s revenues are effectively non-existent and this work stoppage coupled with the drop in Chinese revenue as a result of Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey’s comments during pre-season will serve to significantly impact the type of deal VanVleet may have been anticipating.
“It sucks because guys work their whole life for this moment, and not just myself—you think about a guy like Christian Wood who ended up having a helluva year towards the second half of the season and he’s a free agent and you wonder what that might mean for somebody like him.
“Obviously, we’ll all probably take a hit at some point and hopefully the hit is just kinda minimized to just this year and so there’s way to work around that stuff. At the end of the day, people’s health and well-being and frame of mind is a lot more important than a couple million here or there because we’re all filthy rich compared to where we came from in the first place, so, I don’t think anyone’s crying over it. I just think that it sucks when you do start to think about what could’ve happened, should’ve happened, so, try to stay away from that as much as possible.”
VanVleet has had, in many respects, the perfect contract year to this point. Averaging 17.6 points, 6.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, and 1.9 steals as a starting guard, while shooting 38.8 percent from three-point range—not to mention being the league-leader in deflections on a per game basis—he took his game to an even higher level after Kyle Lowry was injured early in the season to help the Raptors stay afloat on a West Coast trip that had disaster written all over it in the face of injury.
“I felt like I worked myself into a good position. I was having a helluva year and I was intending on having a great playoff to cap it off,” VanVleet said. “More so than worry about what could’ve, should’ve, would’ve happened, it’s more so what’s gonna happen. Are they gonna move the dates around? Does free agency move? How does it affect the cap? Those types of things are more so what I’m thinking about versus woe is me.
“It happened to everybody, it’s not just something that happened to me and I happen to be in this position. So, I’m pretty flexible and I adapt, I think that the work I’ve done is done and hopefully we get a chance to finish the season, but if not, I’m happy with the year that I put on display and let the business take care of the business. I have full faith that everything will work out the way it’s supposed to.”
While VanVleet is a long way from thinking about teams to consider signing with for the 2019-20 season, he made it clear that with his last contract having been for just two years, he’s looking to avoid a short-term contract if the situation allows. That’s his best-case scenario, but he also acknowledges that the current situation is a long way from the best-case scenario. What he does know is that he hopes to return to Toronto as soon as possible for non-basketball reasons, since his barber is located north of the border and he’s in desperate need of a cut; he had his last touch-up toward the end of February for his birthday. Asked if there was any way he would let his better half Shontai Neal cut it, his response was short: “Hell nah, no chance!”
Advertising himself as a skeptic, VanVleet doesn’t see how the season could resume unless the league is comfortable with disrupting the timeline of at least the next season. Everyone is at the hands of the virus’ timetable, and VanVleet feels that for the NBA to continue to be a leader, then it must continue to be patient. He’s been impressed with the job Silver has done thus far in refusing to jump the gun or put any type of timetable for a return, which would only bring added pressure. He trusts that when the time comes for a decision, the correct one will be made.
Whether that means going straight to the playoffs without any regular season games, a tournament-style finish, or even a best-of-three series, VanVleet doesn’t care if it means there’s basketball being played. Some have argued going away from the traditional playoff rounds would tarnish the 2019-20 season and bring that dreaded word “asterisk” into the mix, but VanVleet has moved past that perspective and even thinks the Raptors stand to benefit from any modifications because of their open-minded approach.
“We’re probably one of the most flexible, dynamic teams in the league in terms of the different things that we do: different starting lineups, different schemes. I think that we’re well equipped for anything and that gives us confidence.”
Having always pushed himself to go the extra mile, VanVleet can sit back knowing he’s given himself the requisite tools to handle whatever a new free agency world may throw his way.