Fred VanVleet has been on an absolute heater lately.
Don’t get it twisted: the 6’1” guard has been getting it done all season long since taking over from Kyle Lowry as the Raptors’ floor general, leading the team in scoring while leading the league in minutes per game. But ever since returning from a COVID-induced layoff that included two games missed due to entering the league’s health and safety protocols and two postponements in late December, Steady Freddy has turned things up a notch.
Actually, make that several notches—during a string that not-so-coincidentally coincided with the Raps ripping off a season-best six straight Ws, VanVleet put up an eye-popping 30.3 ppg, 6.5 apg, and 4.8 rpg on his way to racking up his first career triple-double and first career Eastern Conference Player of the Week honours.
The recent tear has come at the absolute perfect time for both the Raptors and VanVleet, as Rockford’s Finest pushes for another career first: his first All-Star Game selection.
“Don’t think he doesn’t know that,” Casey Bannerman told me with a laugh, when we spoke recently to discuss the Toronto-based artist/illustrator’s latest project, a collab with VanVleet’s FVV Shop meant to promote Fred’s All-Star push. “Fred has been unreal. It’s incredible to see what he’s been doing night to night.”
While Bannerman’s quick to point out that VanVleet’s always been “a ‘whatever the team needs’ type of guy” as opposed to a “numbers” guy, the numbers as of late have been pretty undeniable. Still, even though VanVleet’s been lighting up the league, he’s currently ranking eighth among Eastern Conference guards in fan voting for the All-Star Game—behind players like Derrick Rose (who’s missed a hefty chunk of the season due to an ankle injury) and Kyrie Irving (ditto, except in his case it’s due to Irving’s galaxy-brained anti-vax stance).
That disrespect, plus VanVleet’s recent play, helped spur the #DidYouBetOnFred? campaign, said Bannerman, pointing to the relative lack of media attention the Raptors guard has received south of the border despite his recent hot streak. That’s nothing new, of course—for Fred or Raptors fans—although there are signs that’s slowly starting to change with every 30-point outburst.
“Being up here in Canada, you really have to push to be like, ‘Hey guys, just so you know, this person’s putting up numbers.’ ”
Just compare Fred’s coverage to that of his fellow Western Conference Player of the Week Ja Morant, Bannerman said. “There’s not even a comparable buzz in the American media around a guy like Fred, who, if you compare the numbers, they’re really, really close.”
Then again, VanVleet has crafted an entire brand out of being overlooked (literally)—and this season in particular, it feels like he’s finally starting to cash in all those chips on his shoulder as he attempts to go from undrafted underdog to NBA All-Star, an improbable arc that Bannerman and VanVleet leveraged for their latest collab, a limited-edition long-sleeve shirt encouraging fans to “bet on Fred.”
“Obviously, Fred’s always going to be gunning to be the best player that he can. But once I realized that this All-Star thing was very serious is when I approached Fred and his team,” Bannerman recalled. “I thought maybe a long-sleeve is a good layering piece that people can wear at home and take a picture of themselves, because we’re all watching the games from home anyways, right?”
From there, Bannerman and VanVleet and his team went through a couple different iterations of the design—including one of Fred showing off the chipped tooth he picked up during the 2019 NBA Finals. “Honestly, man, you just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and you see what works,” he laughed. Ultimately, they went with the retro “Undrafted All-Star” design seen above, paired with FVV’s now-signature dice (with the 2 and 3 front and centre for #23, natch). “I wanted it to look almost like a late’ 80s, early ’90s action movie.”
“We had to move real fast,” he said. “I knew fan voting was ending January 22nd… I was like, oh, I’ve got to get this into people’s hands ASAP.” The response has been great so far—the shirts are essentially sold out, according to Bannerman, although they may make more available for pre-order to celebrate VanVleet’s (hopefully) impending All-Star selection, whether he’s ultimately voted in by fans or by coaches as a reserve.
It helped that the two are long-time collaborators; Bannerman also designed the custom backpacks VanVleet recently handed out to at-risk Toronto youth, along with the toques, socks and gloves given out in winter care kits as part of VanVleet’s “Heart of the City” initiative. (Bannerman and the FVV Shop team also collabed on a shirt memorializing Fred’s Sam Cassell-esque “big balls dice” celebration back in November. “I remember being like, ‘Yo, well, let’s pay for that fine,’” he laughed. “They did super well. A bunch of players got them too.”)
“I think that’s been why Fred and I have been such a good culture match,” Bannerman said, explaining that the two share a similar work ethic. “We started off with one small project like two years ago, for his clothing company. And I think I must have brought him like 20 designs. I was like, ‘OK, you want to see one? I’m going to show you 20. I’m going to show you a whole collection.’ ”
“I think from that moment, he was like, ‘OK, this guy’s for real. Like, he doesn’t mess around.’”
In fact, it was VanVleet’s early support that Bannerman says gave him the confidence to bet on himself and pursue art full-time. As a kid, he grew up hanging out in the back his parents’ clothing store in Peterborough, drawing to pass the time. “There was just an abundance of those BIC Cristal pens and old pieces of paper with orders on the other side of them. So I would just sit there and draw,” he recalled. But he never really thought of it as a potential career. “Practically, it just didn’t seem like something that I could make a lot of money with. Everybody, teachers, whoever in my life said, ‘That’s great, but you need a Plan B.’ And then when you hear that enough, you don’t think that your Plan A is a Plan A anymore.”
A quarter-life crisis at 30 led to Bannerman getting back into art, and as a rabid NBA fan, and Raps season ticket holder, he slowly built a following on Instagram with his Raptors art. “I used to do these Photoshops that were so silly, looking back on them now, but it would be like DeMar and Terrence Ross as Ricky Bobby and [John C. Reilly], from Talladega Nights. And then DeMar reposted that.” Over time, he developed his now-signature comic book-inspired style: “As I was drawing basketball players, I realized that, to me, there’s no closer equivalent to Superman’s cape than a basketball jersey with your name on it.”
Then, during the 2018/2019 season, MLSE and the Raptors put on Art of the North, a Raptors-themed art show which Bannerman participated in. “One of my pieces was of Fred and I took a picture of it on my story and tagged him, and he reached out to me directly and was like, ‘I need this for my clothing line. This is cool.’ He never ended up getting that [specific] piece. But it did lead to our professional relationship.”
“To this day, I’m super thankful for Fred for making me realize that I can turn this into not only my career, but a lucrative career that supports my family.”
These days, Bannerman designs everything from apparel to prints to custom hand-drawn jerseys for a client roster that includes a number of NBA players—insert the obligatory “Started from the bottom” Drake quote here.
He’s done work for VanVleet’s backcourt predecessor, Kyle Lowry (a framed Villanova jersey featuring art of Lowry and his sons), and Norman Powell, to commemorate the former Raptors’ time in the 6ix after he was traded to Portland last year. “That was pretty touching. His family reached out to me saying that he always loved my jerseys and hoped to see one of him one day.” In 2020, he collaborated with Toronto jeweler Shuly Eizicovics to create a pendant memorializing Pascal Siakam’s late father. (“What’s really cool about that piece is I can tell it really means something to him because he wears it all the time,” he told me.)
“There are moments where you get a little starstruck, for sure,” Bannerman said of his famous clients, although for the most part, he tries not to fanboy too much. “But I’m not going to pretend that sometimes it’s not super cool. I had a thing with Jayson Tatum where I gave him a jersey recently,” he recalled with a laugh. “That time I can’t even pretend I was acting cool. I was not.”
And, yes, Bannerman still gets a kick out of seeing his work in the wild, whether it’s a tunnel walk or social media post. Or, in the case of his latest collab with VanVleet, on the Raptors broadcast. “Shout-out to Matt and Jack, they came through.”
Don’t be surprised if you see some of VanVleet’s teammates rocking the Undrafted All-Star shirts between now and the 22nd either. “We gave them to his teammates. I can’t say too much, but some guys at OVO got them. That’s all I’ll say for now,” he teased. “Some media in Toronto, and outside of Toronto. The guys from the “All the Smoke” podcast, Stephen Jackson and Matt Barnes. Dallas Green from City and Colour and Alexisonfire. A bunch of people.”
“Things like this, you basically just put it in the hands of people and hope that they wear it,” he continued. “But mostly I just want people to vote for Fred. Get him to the All-Star Game. He’s an incredible person, and he’s an incredible basketball player, more importantly.”
“It’s a great unifier to get everybody behind this, and get this guy who went undrafted to the All-Star Game. Fred’s story, it’s something I think that all of us see a little bit of ourselves in, being the underdog and proving others wrong.”