Toronto Raptors

Back to School: Fred VanVleet's journey from mid-major star to NBA Finals X-Factor

Fred VanVleet [Getty Images]

As the new school year approaches, we're rewinding things with Back to School Week! This week, we'll take a look back at the amateur years of some of the biggest stars in the NBA.

The path to the NBA and becoming an established player is never an easy one, especially if you aren't given a guaranteed opportunity right away.

Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet knows a thing or two about that, but he's used to it - he's been overlooked since his high school days.

Though VanVleet was an All-State First Team selection by every major publication in Chicago after leading his high school to a third place finish in the state, the undersized guard only received offers from mid-major Division I schools.

He was still ranked as a four-star recruit by Rivals and was considered a top-150 player in the 2012 class, but the high-major D-I offers never came through.

In deciding between a number of mid-major programs around the Illinois area, VanVleet committed to Wichita State - a decision that panned out better than he probably could have ever imagined.

MORE: What is VanVleet rated in NBA 2K20?

In his first season at Wichita State, the Shockers shocked the country and VanVleet played a key role in their success.

Wichita State made an improbable run in the NCAA Tournament, defeating big-named schools like Gonzaga and Ohio State. In fact, VanVleet scored in double figures off the bench as a freshman in both contests against those major schools to help his team reach the Final Four.

The Shockers' luck ran out, failing to reach the NCAA championship game when they lost to the eventual national champion Louisville Cardinals by a slim four points in the Final Four, but Wichita State's name was now on the radar of every basketball fan in the country.

VanVleet's performance in his freshman campaign was also enough to catch the national spotlight and he backed it up with a breakout sophomore season that made himself a household name among dedicated college basketball fans.

As a sophomore, VanVleet led Wichita State to the first-ever 31-0 season in NCAA history. He averaged 11.6 points, 5.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game while shooting a lights-out 41.8% from beyond the arc. He was honoured to the Missouri Valley Conference First Team and took home the conference's Player of the Year award. He was also named as a semi-finalist for the Naismith Player of the Year award and earned an honourable mention as an Associated Press All-American.

The Shockers earned a No. 1 seed but were defeated by an underachieving Kentucky team that didn't hit their stride until the tournament.

After that sophomore season, VanVleet began to get the respect he truly deserved. As a junior, he was a preseason All-American. He ended up a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, earned another MVC First Team selection and was yet again an AP All-American honourable mention. He averaged a career-best 13.6 points per game and had a few massive games in the NCAA Tournament, such as dropping a career-high 27 points on Indiana, scoring double figures against Kansas and fighting to keep his team alive with 25 points against Notre Dame.

Despite his success, he never received any NBA buzz, so VanVleet elected to return to Wichita for his senior season.

As a senior, VanVleet dealt with some injuries that forced him to miss a handful of games. His trophy case didn't suffer, however, earning MVC First Team, MVC Player of the Year and another AP All-American honourable mention. VanVleet left Wichita State as the all-time leader in both assists and steals.

VanVleet went undrafted at the 2016 NBA Draft but the Raptors recognized his talent and leadership, and gave the mid-major star a shot. He spent his whole first season with Raptors 905 - the G League affiliate - but was successful in bringing the development team a championship.

MORE: Raptors unveil throwback 'Dino' jerseys for upcoming season

VanVleet has made improvements every season since entering the NBA. In 2017-18, he was a finalist for Sixth Man of the Year. In 2018-19, he played a major role in helping Toronto win their first NBA title in franchise history. His performance was so impressive, the undrafted guard even earned one vote for Finals MVP.

It has been an unprecedented journey for VanVleet, but his "bet on yourself" motto has taken him further than he probably could have ever imagined. And he's only continuing to improve, too.

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