Fred VanVleet on Why the Raptors Are Title Contenders and His Challenge to Drake

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Image via Getty/Cole Burston
Image via Getty/Cole Burston

Don’t get it twisted: Fred VanVleet is competing for an NBA championship next season. He wants this to be clear.

The Toronto Raptors are coming off a so-called “rebuild year” that saw them obliterate expectations, finish fifth in the Eastern Conference, and put up a stouthearted fight against the Philadelphia 76ers. Add in the parity in the league, and that’s about all the convincing the team’s starting point guard needs that they can be chip contenders.

“I think that’s enough rebuilding for me at least. I’m not 20 years old, you know?” VanVleet tells Complex Canada. “As I’ve become the old man of this team somehow, I think it’s time to take advantage of these years.”

You can’t blame the 28-year-old for being ambitious. In his sixth NBA season, VanVleet cracked the All-Star roster for the first time, hit career highs in points (20.3), assists (6.7), and rebounds (4.4), and seamlessly emerged as the team’s clear leader in the wake of Kyle Lowry’s departure.

Playing a league-leading 37.9 minutes per game didn’t stop him from relishing the role off the court too. VanVleet was named a finalist for the NBA’s Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Social Justice Champion award for the way he went over and above for Canada’s disadvantaged communities this season—he created a University of Toronto scholarship for Black and Indigenous students, handed out backpacks in at-risk neighbourhoods, and launched a podcast amplifying BIPOC entrepreneurs. He’s also currently one of the faces of Amex Canada’s Blueprint, a mentorship and grant program that will help 100 BIPOC business owners across the country to keep betting on themselves.

We chatted with VanVleet about the future of the Raptors, his support for Canada’s marginalized communities, and a potential showdown between him and Drake.

At the end of last season there was this quote from you where you said, “I went from underrated to overrated very fast.” Can you talk about what you meant by that statement?
Nah, that was more so a joke for the Twitter people; you know, the people that like to play in the comments online. But yeah, I don’t actually think I’m overrated. That was more just a testament to reaching this level. And everybody who watches me is going to say, “How can he be better than that? What’s his next level?” People always put limits on me. So that was more so just a testament to how I view myself and how I challenge myself to be better and I’m not really ever satisfied with things that I’ve done because I know that I can do more. I’m just excited to come back a better player next year.

Are there any specific areas of your game that you plan to focus on this offseason?
I think priority number one for me is just to get my body back right. You know, to be able to sustain the amount of minutes and the wear and tear on my body. I suffered a couple of contact injuries that I couldn’t avoid, so I just [want to] get my body right, stronger, faster, quicker. And then obviously, I want to clean up my finishing at the rim, which is always going to be an adventure at my size; add the floater as another weapon in the toolbox and keep expanding on being a shooter. So I’m really looking forward to getting back out there with the team. We should be pretty exciting to watch next year.

Speaking of betting on yourself, something from this season that really warmed my heart was when you and Norman Powell released that Bet on the Grind collab between your personal brands. I love that you guys are still tight like that, even after he left the team. Are you still boys with a bunch of former Raptors? Do you guys all have a group chat going?
Yeah, no, we don’t do the group chat. But most of the time, once I meet somebody and we develop that brotherhood, that’s going to be for life, at least on my end. So me and Norm are still really close. We spend time together and that was something that just presented itself. I thought it was really cool because I was the first one to jump out there with a brand. I remember everybody thought I was crazy when I did it, but Norm just started picking my brain day by day to see how he wanted to do his. So he ended up launching his own line. And then this collab was all them. Him and his team put all that together and all I had to do was sign off on it. I thought that was a cool moment where everything came full circle. Sometimes I’ll jump out the window and do crazy stuff that everybody else wants to do, but they may not have the wherewithal to go do it. So I’ll take the bullets for everybody else.

It’s always a big moment in Toronto when Drake drops. He’s got such a huge presence on the team; he’s incredibly vocal at games. What’s your relationship like with The Boy?
He’s just a good dude, man. He’s a good dude. We love having him at the games. We love having him as a Raptors fan. He’s just a super cool guy. Obviously, I was a fan before I met him. So just to be able to create a relationship with him over the years is really dope. And he means a lot to the city and to the country as one of the more famous Canadians of our time. I think he’s a great ambassador for basketball and for Canada.

And he plays ball too. I know there’s that clip of him playing Lowry this season. Have you ever played Drake one-on-one?
Nah, I think he’s ducking me. I think he’s ducking me. But we’re gonna set it up. I just told him we gotta play for money. But we’re gonna set it up.

How much are you gonna put on the line?
I don’t know. That’ll be up to him. He’s got way more money than I do, so we’ll see.

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