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Fred VanVleet has gone from undrafted to Mr. Popular

Photo credit: KarynStepien.com

The word undrafted in relation to the NBA can carry several assumptions. Being needed isn’t usually one of them.

After no team was swayed enough to have his named announced to the world by Adam Silver at the 2016 draft, Fred VanVleet has now become a hot commodity within the Toronto Raptors organization. He earned a multi-year contract courtesy of a steady summer league and injury to Delon Wright, pulled ahead of Cory Joseph in the Raptors rotation in February momentarily, has built strong relationships with the likes of Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, and the Raptors 905 are the latest to fawn over the former Wichita State Shocker.

Needing a win to keep alive their hopes of winning the D-League championship, the 905, in not too dissimilar a fashion to the parent club turning to Norman Powell to resurrect their hopes against the Milwaukee Bucks, acquired Fred VanVleet to help solve the D-League’s best offence in the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

This was, in some ways, a tricky decision. VanVleet last played with the team on Feb. 23 against the Erie Bayhawks and while the undrafted rookie was plying his trade with the senior squad after the wrist injury to Kyle Lowry, the 905 won 17 of their next 20 games. But with the departures of Edy Tavares and Axel Toupane to greener pastures and the loss of Will Sheehey to injury, the need for VanVleet became apparent. Would two point guards that have run the team during that span be comfortable with the decision?

John Jordan, the starting point guard for the 905 through their first five playoff games and given the job due to his defensive prowess, was thrilled by the addition of VanVleet before their do-or-die game.

“He’s an experienced player — good player — can help us contain the ball a bit more so it should help,” he said. “Obviously, we’re better with him.”

Brady Heslip was also equally enthused by the move.

“It definitely helps, we’re short on guys as it is,” Heslip said in the locker room before the game. “Fred has been great every time he’s come down here so we’re just looking forward to having him back and bouncing back. I think he’s a really smart player and controls the game pretty well so he’ll get out there and run the team and everyone else will follow suit.”

That the two guards that have played a major role in getting the 905 this far are so comfortable with having their roles reduced speaks to the mindset head coach Jerry Stackhouse has helped cultivate all season, and frankly, the fact that they are at a point in the season where nothing matters more than winning. That, of course, is why VanVleet has fit right in with this franchise in the first place.

“I think what they need is what I am, so it kinda works out,” said VanVleet. “I don’t have to come down here and try to score 50 tonight, try to give ‘em steady offense and guard the dribble. Hopefully I can do a good job of giving them some reinforcements there at the point and trying to guard those guys off the bounce, and try to do what I do offensively, and see if we can tie this up.”

Knot the series up is exactly what they did, as the 905 defeated Houston’s D-League affiliate, the Vipers, 95-85 to set up a final showdown on Thursday night (yes, it will conflict with the Raptors-Bucks Game 6). Pascal Siakam was the rookie whose star shone brightest with 32 points, 10 rebounds, five steals, and two blocks, but was quick to point out the value of Wichita State’s all-time assist leader on the floor.

“He’s a playmaker, so it helps me out there on the floor,” Siakam said on the heels of his dominant performance. “Having a guy that can find shooters, guys like Brady, E.J., find guys that can roll to the basket like myself. It definitely helps to have a guy like him that can control the tempo.”

VanVleet put up 16 points, nine assists, and seven rebounds himself, and despite a slow start on the offensive end (Darius Morris posed problems with his size), played an important role in setting the tone defensively. The 905 walked a fine line between seeking out transition opportunities against a team that put up an offensive rating of 113.7 in the regular season and a slow, ugly game that kept the Vipers out of rhythm. The Vipers were limited to 41 per cent shooting overall, and just 27 per cent from deep.

Even with all these things the 905 did right, the Vipers went on a 9-0 run to tie the game at 81 with 4:28 remaining, leaving Mississauga’s hopes of a championship hanging by a thread. That’s when VanVleet’s experience kicked in, and he helped spark a 12-3 run that put Rio Grande to bed. He started by penetrating the defence and kicking out to E.J. Singler for a wide-open 3-pointer, followed up Bruno Caboclo’s offensive rebound and dunk with a layup of his own, and then capped the run with an assist to Siakam for a slam-plus-the-foul.

It’s the type of composure that’s now expected of someone that looks just as unflustered when leading his college to an NCAA Final Four appearance or playing under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden in an NBA game.

It’s unfortunate that Stackhouse likely won’t be able to procure VanVleet’s services for their final game due to the conflict with the Raptors playoff game, but hey, for Fred, it’s good to just be wanted.

UPDATE: The 905 have confirmed that VanVleet will indeed remain with the team for the team’s final game, showing just how much this franchise values winning at every level.

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