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Josh Lewenberg

TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – With each passing game, even after all these years, it’s becoming harder and harder to believe that Fred VanVleet went undrafted.

On Wednesday he dropped a team-leading 24 points on the Orlando Magic and point guard Markelle Fultz. If you didn’t know any better you’d think VanVleet was the former first-overall pick.

Last week he outdueled Damian Lillard, scoring 30 points while doing his part to hold the Blazers all-star to nine points on 2-of-12 shooting. Just a few days earlier, his double-double of 23 points and 10 assists (to go along with seven rebounds) helped the shorthanded Raptors steal an unlikely win from the Lakers in Los Angeles.

Already a former Sixth Man of the Year finalist and last spring’s NBA Finals hero, VanVleet has taken another big step forward this season. In his fifth campaign, the 25-year-old has looked like a rising star and one of the most important pieces on one of the league’s best teams. 

Yet somehow, not long ago, all 30 teams decided that they didn’t need or want him, most of them multiple times.

The process of scouting, evaluating and ultimately drafting players is an inexact science. While some teams have had more success than others, nobody’s perfected it.

Every year there are highly ranked prospects that will fail to meet expectations. Then there are always going to be players that, for whatever reason, fall through the cracks but end up proving their naysayers wrong and making the system look silly.

“The draft is not a foolproof product, and we’ve seen that,” VanVleet said. “Those guys [making the selections] are human and they make mistakes. Players have a bad game, management makes stupid picks – it happens. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. So you get players that maybe should’ve been drafted or could’ve been drafted that aren’t and they find their way on a team and they go on to have long, good careers.”

VanVleet has become the face of those overachievers – a guy that teams have in mind when they invest time and resources into player development and somebody that many under-appreciated players look to for inspiration. And why wouldn’t they? He’s not just the best undrafted player in the game today, he might already be the best of the modern era.

Through 14 games this season, all of them as a starter, VanVleet is averaging a career-best 17.6 points. Since 1990, only one undrafted player has averaged more over the course of a full season (minimum 60 games): former Raptor Mike James, who averaged 20.3 points with Toronto in 2005-06.

VanVleet is one of several reasons why the Raptors are known for their unparalleled ability to find and develop undervalued talent. It’s a well-earned reputation that’s taken many years and multiple unlikely success stories to build.

Famously, last season’s Raptors became the first team in NBA history to win a championship without a lottery pick on their roster. Now, without Kawhi Leonard – who was taken immediately after the lottery with the 15th pick back in 2011 – there’s an even greater emphasis on internal growth.

Pascal Siakam, Toronto’s 27th-overall pick in 2016, is now the team’s leading scorer, a max player and budding NBA superstar. OG Anunoby, who fell to them with the 23rd pick the following year, is enjoying a breakout season and looks like a two-way star in the making. Norman Powell, a former second-rounder, has become a reliable rotation player and capable spot starter.

Then there’s VanVleet, who has filled in admirably as the lead guard with the injured Kyle Lowry out of the lineup, and a group of emerging reserves looking to follow in his footsteps.

In rookie guard Terence Davis, Canadian big man Chris Boucher and sharpshooter Matt Thomas, the Raptors have another three players that went undrafted and are now making an impact in meaningful minutes at the highest level of the game.

There are 94 undrafted players that have appeared in an NBA game so far this season and the Raptors have three in the top-20 in win shares: VanVleet in first (1.7), Davis tied for eighth (0.9) and Boucher tied for 16th (0.7). Those three players combined for 57 points, 20 rebounds and 13 assists on 22-for-39 shooting in Wednesday’s win over Orlando.

Injuries to Lowry (thumb), Serge Ibaka (ankle) and Patrick McCaw (knee) have opened the door for those young reserves and, to their credit, they’ve each taken advantage. Davis, in particular, has been a revelation.

At one point, between the first quarter of Monday’s win over Charlotte and Wednesday’s second quarter, Davis went 28 minutes without missing a shot. He hit 10 consecutive attempts, including seven straight from beyond the arc.

The 22-year-old has set a new career-high in scoring in four of his last six games, culminating in a 19-point outing against the Magic. After shooting just 34 per cent from three-point range in four seasons at Ole Miss, he’s hitting an impressive 49 per cent of his threes as a rookie.

Is Nick Nurse seeing what he expected to see from Davis this early in the young guard’s professional career?

“Well I think we might be seeing a little more than we’re expecting to see,” the Raptors head coach said on Wednesday night. “It’s two games in a row where the guy’s checked in and just started nailing threes right off the bench. He’s given our offence a big boost and the momentum changed in both games. I’m not sure I expected him to do all that.”

As Nurse noted, Davis might be catching some teams off guard, after all he wasn’t on most of their radars leading up to the draft this past summer. Once they catch on he should be featured more prominently on the scouting reports, a challenge he says he’s ready for. There’s sure to be some growing pains along the way, but there’s no reason to think he can’t adjust and continue having success.

In a league that’s obsessed with and often seduced by upside, age and measurables around draft time, it’s even harder to believe that Davis went unselected.

At least at the time, you could see and maybe understand why teams were on the fence about VanVleet, as crazy as it looks in hindsight. After four years in college – something that, in the minds of most teams, limits a player’s upside – he was coming in as an older, undersized point guard. There were plenty of good reasons to talk yourself into VanVleet – his skill, character, high IQ and knack for winning – but teams couldn’t get past those superficial qualities.

However, in the case of Davis, how do you watch this guy play for even five minutes and not see an NBA-ready athlete?

Listed at 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, Davis was a star wide receiver in high school and received over 20 scholarship offers to play football in college. Although basketball was his first love and the sport he ended up committing to, the skill he says translates best from football to basketball is his physicality. 

He checks off a lot of boxes, from his NBA body, physicality and athleticism, to a lot of those same qualities VanVleet is best known for – his maturity, drive and work ethic.

Those are the common denominators between VanVleet and Davis, as well as Boucher, Thomas and just about everybody else that has had to overcome adversity early in their career in order to fight their way into the league. Those are the kinds of guys the Raptors look for and have had success betting on.

“It just shows you what type of players we’ve got around us,” Davis said. “We’ve got some hungry guys who, regardless of any situation, we know we can overcome it and accomplish our goals. It’s the hunger to be great.”