The Undrafted, $100 Million NBA Player…

The Undrafted, $100 Million NBA Player…

Fred VanVleet didn’t expect his party during the 2016 NBA draft would send hundreds of his family and friends home disappointed. That night was supposed to be the celebratory end of a grueling process in which he hopscotched the country for 18 workouts and job interviews in 30 days. He knew he was a likely second-round pick, but he still hoped that some team had become so enamored with him that he would be drafted earlier.

He went undrafted instead.

“I can see why they didn’t think my game would translate,” VanVleet says now. “I didn’t have any of the measurables. I’m only 6 foot. I don’t have a super cut-up body. I’m not jumping out of the gym. I’m not very fast. They were, like, there’s a million other guys we can find who can do that.”

It’s clear now that VanVleet should have been drafted. The odd thing is that he could have been. But the few NBA teams that were open to selecting VanVleet told him that night they would stash him in the G League and that his chances of making their roster were roughly the same as him growing to 7 feet.

This is when VanVleet made one of the most difficult, counterintuitive decisions of his life: He told NBA teams not to draft him. Then he spent the rest of the night doing what he would have done otherwise. “I got wasted,” he said.

Several bottles of champagne and four impressive NBA seasons later, VanVleet’s decision to go undrafted looks wiser than ever. He signed a small deal with the Toronto Raptors and then a much bigger one. He went from backup to starter and won a championship along the way. Now, for the first time since he went undrafted, he’s an unrestricted free agent.

He’s also perhaps the most coveted player on the market.

NBA free agency begins on Friday, and Fred VanVleet is the best guard available. His suitors could make him between $80 million and $100 million richer by next week—and he’s uncharacteristically blunt about how much that money would mean to him.

“I’ve seen guys sit here and act like it doesn’t matter. It does matter. Let’s not kid ourselves,” VanVleet said. “It’s not the only aspect. But it’s a big aspect.”

The NBA is smack in the middle of a berserk stretch in which the trade window opened on Monday, the draft on Wednesday and free agency starts on Friday. There will be stunning deals, spectacular twists and lots of stuff that makes no sense without Talmudic knowledge of the basketball universe. But if you want to understand important aspects of the league—how players are valued, how teams are constructed, how championships are won—all you have to do is look at VanVleet.

Undrafted

Total win share by undrafted NBA players has rapidly increased in the past decade.

Number of undrafted NBA players and their total win share, per season

36
31
86
46
80
104
58
65
69
83
Win share
30
undrafted PLayers
20
10

2011
‘12
‘15
‘16
‘17
‘18
‘19
‘13
‘14
‘20

36
31
86
46
80
104
58
65
69
83
Win share
30
undrafted PLayers
20
10

2011
‘12
‘15
‘16
‘17
‘18
‘19
‘13
‘14
‘20

36
31
86
46
80
104
58
65
69
83
Win share
30
undrafted PLayers
20
10

2011
‘12
‘15
‘16
‘17
‘18
‘19
‘13
‘14
‘20


undrafted PLayers

10
20
30
2011
36
2012
31
2013
46
2014
58
2015
65
2016
69
2017
83
2018
86
2019
80
2020
104

This draft class was the most overanalyzed collection of teenagers of all time, and their intense examination culminated in the Minnesota Timberwolves taking Georgia guard Anthony Edwards at No. 1, the Golden State Warriors grabbing Memphis center James Wiseman at No. 2 and the Charlotte Hornets selecting the Ball family’s LaMelo Ball at No. 3. But even with five extra months of scouting and preparation, NBA teams will still get things wrong. It happens every year.

And some of the most enduring players in this draft will be the ones whose names won’t be called on Wednesday.

The economics of the NBA incentivize teams to find those players they missed. They need stars to win. But stars are expensive. So they fill the roster with complementary players on the cheap. And nobody is cheaper than guys who went undrafted—until suddenly they’re not. The expansion of rosters, the introduction of two-way contracts and the growth of the NBA’s salary cap means there are more undrafteds earning more money than ever. These players who were once ignored by every team made over $200 million last season.

The NBA Finals featured two undrafted, unlikely standouts in Alex Caruso and Duncan Robinson. Anthony Davis is No. 1 on ESPN’s list of top free agents, but Davis leaving the Lakers is about as likely as LeBron James retiring to open a taco stand. The more surprising players were the ones who might actually change teams: VanVleet at No. 2 and Detroit Pistons forward Christian Wood at No. 3. They, too, were undrafted.

“I carry that with me every day,” VanVleet said.

Some undrafted stars don’t expect to be drafted. VanVleet wasn’t one of them. “I’m not crazy,” he said. “I didn’t have 18 awesome workouts. But I had at least six to eight really, really, really good workouts where I was the best player in the gym.” He figured some team would draft him—maybe even in the first round. They didn’t.

Then something curious happened in the second round of the draft: NBA teams were too honest with VanVleet. He says they told him he wouldn’t be competing for a roster spot in training camp even if they picked him. If they had simply lied, he would have believed them. “I would’ve said sign me up,” he said.

Instead of settling for an unfriendly deal with an unconvinced team as a second-round pick, he took the bold step of respectfully declining and requesting not to be drafted, a shrewd move that promised him more control and the possibility of a bigger payout as long as he took on greater personal risk.

He’d dreamed of making the NBA—and making an NBA salary—from the time he was a child sharing clothes with his brothers. But VanVleet had an unusually long view for someone in his position. He remembers having $10,000 and $20,000 in his bank account from “hustling and doing commercials” after his final game at Wichita State. He recognized the G League would always be there as a safe fallback plan. This felt like the right time to take a chance.

“Let’s roll the dice,” he said.

NBA free agency begins on Friday, and Fred VanVleet is the best guard available.



Photo:

Harry How/Getty Images

VanVleet’s bet on himself paid off almost immediately. He went to Las Vegas for the 2016 summer league and left with an NBA contract to play for the Raptors. He established himself as a reliable backup, which happens to be a lucrative job: VanVleet earned a two-year deal worth $18 million. By going undrafted he would earn more in his first four years on the job than many of the first-round picks in his draft class.

But it turned out that VanVleet was also a bargain. He was an essential member of Kawhi Leonard’s supporting cast when the Raptors won the 2019 title. Then he took on a pivotal role without Leonard and put himself in position for a huge payday.

One of the strangest things about working in the NBA is that strangers know your salary and have strident opinions about whether you’re actually worth it. This bugs VanVleet. And he knows how it sounds to haggle over the enormous wealth coming his way. But that’s exactly what free agency is.

“Anything I get is more than what I need and more than what I ever thought I would have,” VanVleet said. “But you can’t negotiate from that stance. You have to recognize your market value and play your cards carefully.”

That could mean leaving the Raptors for another team. It could mean taking less or grabbing more. But as soon as he signs his contract, he’s on the clock for his next one.

“I’m not leaving the casino completely,” he said. “I’m cashing my chips and I’m getting the money, and we can go home and celebrate—and then come back to the casino and start gambling again.”

Write to Ben Cohen at ben.cohen@wsj.com

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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