Rockford’s greatest basketball players No. 1: Fred VanVleet: Rockford’s greatest keeps getting greater

Matt Trowbridge
Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23), shown dribbling against Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart, is the most accomplished basketball player in Rockford history.

Fred VanVleet once scored all 38 of his team’s points in a grade-school game.

And then he got better.

VanVleet led a team with no starter taller than 6 feet to third place in Class 4A, the second-highest finish by any Rockford boys basketball team at state in the last 64 years.

And then he got better.

He went to the Final Four as a freshman, where Wichita State led eventual champion Louisville with less than five minutes to play.

And then he got even better, leading the Shockers as the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year to an NCAA-record 35-0 start as a sophomore.

Then he got better, becoming a finalist for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award as a second-year Toronto Raptor.

He became an NBA champion in his third year. This season, the fourth-year undrafted free agent became a starter for the NBA’s second-best team, averaged 17.6 points and finished 10th in NBA All-Star voting.

So what’s next for Rockford’s greatest basketball player? The only thing that seems for sure is Fred VanVleet will continue to get better.

That’s what he does.

VanVleet, one of the shortest players in the NBA at 6 foot, doesn’t get taller or quicker or jump higher, yet he has become Rockford’s greatest player because he outworks everyone and understands the game as well as anyone who has ever played.

“Fred VanVleet makes better decisions and reads help better than any kid I’ve ever seen,” longtime Hononegah coach Mike Miller said. “If Fred drives and the big guy helps, he’s dropping it off for a layup. If your wing helps, he’s kicking it out for a 3. And if nobody helps, he’s scoring himself.

“You watch him play in the NBA and some of the things he is doing is because he’s thinking the game way ahead of everyone else. He sees things way before they happen.”

VanVleet first made an impact at Auburn as a playmaker, but soon became the Knights’ leading scorer even though shooting wasn’t supposed to be his forte. When VanVleet passed Jefferson’s Richard Carter to become the all-time leading scorer for any Rockford Public School team, VanVleet said “that is kind of funny to me” and Auburn coach Bryan Ott called it “ironic.”

And yet VanVleet’s first impact at Wichita State was hitting some big 3-pointers during that Final Four run. And when that 35-0 Shockers team finally lost to eventual NCAA runner-up Kentucky the next year, it was VanVleet that was trusted to take the potential game-winning long 3-pointer.

“I’m not a natural shooter, not a spot-up shooter,” VanVleet told the Register Star that year. “But if you put enough time in on something, it will pay off.”

That’s how it has always worked for Fred VanVleet.

“He’s just relentless,” Ott said. “Even in high school, people wondered if he would be a good enough shooter to play in college. That irritated him and got to him. But rather than being defiant about it, he went to work on it.”

And never stopped working.

“He’s not a natural shooter,” agreed Shockers coach Gregg Marshall in 2014. “He’s just a guy who has worked on his shot. He trusts it. And he lives on the big moment.”

VanVleet lived in the big moments at Auburn, leading the Knights to their first two sectional titles in 32 years. He kept doing that at Wichita State, becoming the school’s first two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.

“Every team Fred’s been involved in, he’s been the guy who would step up and make the big play and the right play at the right time,” Ott said.

That continued in Toronto’s title run last year. He was mired in a horrid 6-for-42 playoff shooting slump when the Raptors trailed Milwaukee two games to one. But he then shot 14-for-17 on 3-pointers as the Raptors swept the next three games, including 7-for-9 in a pivotal 105-99 Game 5 win in Milwaukee. He averaged 14 points in the NBA Finals and played great defense on two-time MVP Stephen Curry in the six-game victory.

VanVleet’s defensive analytics have long been some of the best on the Toronto Raptors. He’s an all-around player, even though his lack of size and explosiveness — Ott has seen him dunk in a game only once in his life, in his final regular-season high school game at Belvidere North — would seem to make him a defensive mismatch in the NBA.

Because of his size,” Mikey Rouleau wrote on, “he should be a liability but he isn’t. He is an absolutely tenacious defender.”

The Toronto Sun once called VanVleet “a whirling dervish.”

“I’ve always been a good defender,” VanVleet told the Register Star two years ago. “I’ve been able to have success guarding ball screens and picking up full court. Defense is more about heart than size or skill.”

“He is so cerebral,” former Wichita State assistant Greg Heiar, now at LSU, said in that 2018 story. “His intelligence level, his IQ, his feel for the game is all off the charts. He understands angles and positioning.”

He also understands the world beyond the basketball court. VanVleet first made an impact by changing the NIC-10 landscape and making Auburn an annual contender.

“We did it for our side of town,” VanVleet said then. “We want to give the little kids hope that they can do it, too. We’re changing trends around here.”

He kept changing trends by signing on as Rockford’s first sports ambassador. In that role, he made sure kids knew that his father, Fred Manning, was shot to death in a drug deal when VanVleet was young.

“So many kids might see me as a good kid and think I have it all,” he explained. “In reality, knowing what happened with my dad, I came from the same background as they come from. … It’s important to me that other younger kids have the chance to get out and not make bad decisions.”

VanVleet also started his own clothing line, opened up a store in downtown Rockford and designed his own logo. And then he spoke up about the NBA restarting its season during racial injustice protests. And led the team in supporting team president Masai Ujiri after a new release of bodycam video showed deputy Allan Strickland stopping Ujiri with his arm before shoving him multiple times to prevent Ujiri from celebrating their title on the court.

“Fred wants to be on top,” said Joe Danforth, VanVleet’s step father and a longtime Rockford police officer and Auburn assistant coach. “He wants to be a power player, whether it’s in his business or on the court. He wants to be involved. We can’t be more proud of him for wanting to do all of that stuff, for not settling for being average.”

VanVleet will never settle for being average. He won’t even settle for being good. The undrafted point guard has gotten better every year in the NBA, increasing his scoring average from 2.9 points to 8.6 to 11.0 to 17.6 this year for a team that finished with the second-best record in the NBA.

No one knows what’s next, but we should all know by now that VanVleet won’t be satisfied unless it’s better than whatever came before.

“Some people are just stuck on that, about wanting to be good all the time at every darn thing,” Danforth said. “We’ve always had a competitive household, and Fred is the most competitive at everything, whether it was playing video games or card games. The other night, we were playing Uno and he had to keep playing until he won. Then he didn’t want to play any more.

“That dude is something else. He is competitive as all get-out.”

That has made him not just Rockford’s best basketball player, but perhaps Rockford’s most amazing success story.

“I am amazed by it, but I am not surprised by it,” Ott said. “There is nothing Fred does that surprises me. There doesn’t seem to be any height he can’t reach. He has an indomitable will, and is such a fierce player and such a smart player.

“It’s incredible. And it’s a wonderful story for our school and our city. And even though he is ours — and believe me, we claim him here at Auburn — I love the fact that everyone else claims him too as a Rockford product.”

Matt Trowbridge:; @matttrowbridge


The Rockford Register Star is running a daily retrospective on the greatest area athletes of the past 75 years in every IHSA sport fielded by local high schools.

We also ran separate stories on the 10 greatest high school football games and girls and boys basketball games.

All of the greatest games and greatest athletes are chosen by Matt Trowbridge, who has covered area high school sports for 30 years, and NIC-10 History Book founder Alex Gary, with input from other area experts and fans.

No. 15: Bill Erickson, East

No. 14: Ernie Kent, West

No. 13: Perry Range, South Beloit

No. 12: Mark Sibley, West

No. 11: McKinley “Deacon” Davis, Freeport

No. 10: Kim Hughes, Freeport

No. 9A: Nolden Gentry, West

No. 9B: John Wessels, West

No. 8: Lee Lampley, Boylan

No. 7: Ryan Hoover, Hononegah

No. 6: Chad Gallagher, Boylan

No. 5: Allen Rayhorn, Dakota

No. 4: Carl Cain, Freeport

No. 3: Danny Jones, Boylan

No. 2: Skip Thoren, East

No. 1: Fred VanVleet, Auburn

NOTE: There will now be a two-week break with Matt Trowbridge going on vacation before we start our greatest girls basketball players list.

Fred VanVleet (23), shown scoring over Gurnee Warren's Nathan Boothe, led Auburn to its first two sectional titles in 32 years and a third-place finish in Class 4A as a senior, the second-highest finish by any NIC-10 team in the last 60 years.