Fred VanVleet’s slogan is “Bet on Yourself.” He pinned the message on his Twitter account and sells it on T-shirts.
The brand is appropriate for a player who ascended from an undersized and undrafted G-Leaguer to potential All-Star. VanVleet is also apparently careful with betting actual money. According to his stepfather, VanVleet only recently purchased a car — a Corvette — after renting vehicles because he wasn’t ready for the financial commitment.
“His cheap-ass just bought a car,” Joe Danforth, who raised and coached VanVleet as a youngster in Rockford, Ill., chuckled. “He says we’re loose with the money so he’s careful. He’s always looking ahead.”
VanVleet, 26, can soon afford many, many, many Corvettes. In the 2020 free-agent class, he’ll likely command the third-biggest contract behind Anthony Davis and Brandon Ingram (who are both expected to re-sign with their respective teams). People around the league view Malcolm Brogdon’s deal last year with the Pacers as VanVleet’s comparison, which means in the neighborhood of four years, $85 million.
The Raptors are the betting favorites to re-sign VanVleet, but his free agency is unrestricted and the Knicks, according to sources, are among the other teams with interest. If they don’t pull the trigger on a Chris Paul trade, it certainly makes sense for the cap-loaded Knicks.
Danforth doesn’t know where his stepson will end up — he’s heard rumors about New York, Detroit and Phoenix — and it’s hard to imagine Toronto letting a proven championship piece get away.
No matter the destination, his stepfather gives a convincing pitch.
“He’s not a superstar or nothing like that, but Fred is hell of a f---ing ballplayer. He’s a true basketball player,” Danforth said. "He’s a throwback to back in the day, to a guy like Dennis Johnson from the Celtics, those kind of guys who are unheralded.
“Fred is just a tough basketball player that people overlook because he’s not jumping out of the gym. He’s not dunking the ball and doing that. But he does what a basketball player is supposed to do: he scores the ball and plays defense.”
Danforth can certainly speak with expertise about VanVleet’s game and personality. VanVleet was only 5 when his biological father was murdered, and Danforth, a Rockford police detective, emerged as dad and coach.
He founded an AAU basketball team, Rockford Five-0, enlisting VanVleet and his brothers as the star players. VanVleet was never the uber-athlete or top-rated prospect, but he compensated with toughness and won at every level.
Along the way, VanVleet’s confidence grew. He went from being “a reluctant shooter” at Wichita State, as Danforth described, to averaging 20 points on 17 shots in this year’s NBA playoffs. He was a key part of Toronto’s 2019 championship run, earning roughly $18 million combined the last two seasons.
“The role [the Raptors] told him they needed, they told him he needed to score, he needed to knock down shots,” Danforth said. “So that’s all he worked on in the summer.”
Still, questions remain about VanVleet’s size (he’s only 6-1) and ability to perform outside the Raptors' system. Danford is most annoyed by suggestions that VanVleet isn’t a point guard or playmaker. In Toronto, with Kyle Lowry on the roster, VanVleet often played off the ball.
But his background is in facilitating.
“That’s what kills me when people say Fred’s not a point guard, they say he’s a shooting guard. No, he’s not. He’s a point guard,” Danford said. “That dude is a point guard. But if they tell him you need to play the 2 or the 3 or whatever, he’s like, ‘OK, I can play that.’ He will morph into what he needs to do.”
The Knicks have long needed an answer at VanVleet’s natural position. Danforth sees a good fit with RJ Barrett and Frank Ntilikina, but just wants what’s best for his stepson.
It might be the most intriguing free agency of the offseason.
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