WICHITA, Kan. From a prep standout in Rockford Illinois to an under-the-radar guard who emerged as a star for Wichita State to a "diamond-in-the-rough," undrafted professional player, Fred VanVleet Thursday night adds a new label he'll never shed: "NBA champion."
VanVleet played a major role in securing the Toronto Raptors' first NBA championship. He emerged as a star of the NBA Finals against the favored Golden State Warriors, playing the majority of minutes and gaining respect across the hoops world for his tenacious defense and ability to hit big shots.
VanVleet saved perhaps his best performance for last, scoring 22 points and hitting clutch baskets down the stretch to put away the Warriors in Game 6 of the Finals series.
For those who got to know VanVleet and his work ethic at Wichita State, the guard's performance on basketball's biggest stage wasn't surprising.
"Not surprised, but very proud," says Wichita State Athletic Director Darron Boatright. "(VanVleet) took (Wichita State) to another level, and he's doing the same thing in Toronto."
VanVleet was a freshman backup point guard for the Shockers' Final 4 team in 2013. The team may not have made the run it did had VanVleet not hit one of the biggest 3-point shots of his college career late in the second-round upset of No. 1-seed Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament round of 32.
That run was a launching point for VanVleet who went on to establish himself as one of the nation's top players, guiding the Shockers to an undefeated regular season as a sophomore, a Sweet 16 run as a junior and two more NCAA Tourney wins as a senior to cap a decorated college career.
J.R. Simon played alongside VanVleet during his four-year run of success at Wichita State. Simon refers to VanVleet as "a brother," and he's among those excited to see his former teammate find success at the sport's highest level.
"I'm extremely happy for him as a former teammate, as a brother, as a close friend of mine. You know, I couldn't be happier," Simon says. "As a basketball player and a kid you always dream of something like this, and to see him living this dream out and performing the way he has been, it's been awesome."