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Toronto Raptors

Fred VanVleet's 2019 NBA Finals performance has catapulted him towards stardom

Under four minutes remain in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors; things are all tied up at 101.

With a raucous Oracle Arena crowd erupting in a deafening "defence" chant, Fred VanVleet coolly knocks down a triple after masterfully using a Pascal Siakam screen and creating plenty of space with a step back.

The shot was especially impactful considering the back-and-forth nature of this Game 6 and the fact that Raptors looked to do what was seemingly impossible: win a third game in The Bay to avoid a decisive Game 7.

Down two entering the final frame, the Raptors led for just 16 seconds in the fourth quarter prior to VanVleet's clutch jumper. Ironically, that lead was also courtesy of a triple VanVleet hit with 7:08 remaining in the game to put his team up 94-93.

His triple with 3:46 on the clock would put Toronto up for good, serving as a breaking point in both a figurative and literal sense.

Not only would this be a defining moment for VanVleet, but it would also become an iconic moment in Raptors franchise history, immortalized by one photograph.

MORE: Raptors' defining moments in the 2019 Finals

And who really could have predicted that moment? For the better part of the first 15 games of the postseason, VanVleet struggled, averaging 4.0 points per game while shooting 25.6% from the field and 19.5% from beyond the arc.

The final nine games of the playoffs saw VanVleet complete a superhero-like arc, averaging 14.0 points, 2.7 rebounds and 2.2 assists, including a 22-point performance in the title-clincher that resulted in his earning one Finals MVP vote for his efforts.

These efforts have had a ripple effect well beyond the NBA Finals.

A few days before the start of the 2019-20 regular season, Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant had high praise for the Raptors guard, telling Hot 97's Ebro "VanVleet is stamped to me. He's a dog in the league and he's going to be in the league for a long, long time. However long he wanna play he's going to be in the league."

KD continued, adding that "as an undrafted player, a lot of young guys should be looking at Fred VanVleet as an inspiration."

That VanVleet went undrafted adds even more perspective to the path he has taken. On June 23, 2016, VanVleet stood in front of family and friends in Rockford, IL to explain why his name wasn't among the 60 called in the NBA Draft. Less than three years later, he hit one of the biggest shots in the history of a franchise, becoming a household name in NBA circles in the process.

It was the perfect launching pad for the next stage in his career.

Confidence is a complex concept, especially in the sports world, where it's often a two-way street. When you exude confidence, others will have confidence in your getting the job done but in those times, when you can't get it right, the confidence others have in you can be what allows you to break through.

ONE STAT: How VanVleet has grown as a pick-and-roll scorer

That confidence that made way for VanVleet's breakthrough last year resulted in even more confidence ahead of this season, with both Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse having confidence in their team despite losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency.

While the Raptors made minor moves to address some needs, the reality of their mindset was simple: The answer to their problems was already on the roster.

The answer was Fred VanVleet.

After starting in just 28 of the first 177 regular-season games of his career as an injury replacement, VanVleet was the Raptors opening night starter, joining Kyle Lowry in a relatively undersized - yet efficient - starting backcourt.

Staying true to form, VanVleet picked up right where he left off to close the NBA Finals, scoring a career-high 34 points (on 12-for-18 shooting) to go along with seven assists and five rebounds in a thrilling opening night win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

Toronto had its starting lineup figured out, only it wouldn't take long for injuries to get in the way.

Less than 10 games into the season, Lowry would sustain a hand injury that meant VanVleet would assume more on-ball responsibility while the rest of the lineup underwent changes. In his first game in that role, VanVleet helped lead the undermanned Raptors to a gutsy road win over the Los Angeles Lakers, finishing with 23 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in 38 minutes of action. Three nights later, he finished with 30 points and seven assists as Toronto put its championship DNA on full display in a comeback win over the Portland Trail Blazers.

It's the championship DNA that VanVleet seemingly always had within and since the 2019 postseason, it's been on display more than ever.

Through 48 games this season (all starts), VanVleet is averaging 17.6 points, 6.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals - career-highs across the board. He's dealt with the injury bug about as much as anyone else this season, missing 16 games with various ailments; his overall importance is evidenced by Toronto's 35-13 record with him in the lineup.

Some elements of the future - namely if and when the 2019-20 season resumes and all things surrounding VanVleet's impending free agency - remain unknown, but as Durant asserted prior to this season, the undrafted guard from Wichita State will be in this league for as long as he wants.

What's next? All-Star? All-NBA? Franchise player? Considering how far VanVleet has come since going undrafted in 2016, you really can't rule anything out.

And while the Finals MVP vote he received in 2019 might be viewed by many as anecdotal and be relegated to a trivia answer years down the line, we should never forget that it is also the tangible representation of the launching pad for all VanVleet achieves for the rest of his career.

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