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Fred VanVleet: People are overlooking Toronto Raptors again

Now that Fred VanVleet is officially back with the Toronto Raptors, he is excited that the team finds itself in a familiar position: being doubted and overlooked.

"I'm excited about what we've got," VanVleet said Tuesday morning during a virtual news conference commemorating his new four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors. "I think we're kind of headed back in the direction of where we were pre-Kawhi [Leonard], where people are overlooking us again, which is not a bad place to be in.

"We've got a lot of work to do and we've got to get a lot better as individuals, and then we'll go out there and see what we can do. I'm excited. I can't wait to get back to work."

Being overlooked is a feeling VanVleet, the 6-foot guard from Rockford, Illinois, is used to. After going undrafted out of Wichita State four years ago, he famously stood up at his post-draft party and said he was going to "bet on himself," and later tweeted, "Bet on yourself."

His presser Tuesday was in front of a banner that had his personal "FVV" logo on it and a poker chip with "Bet On Yourself" inscribed inside it. Both the video and the mantra have become synonymous with VanVleet, whose contract is the biggest ever given to a previously undrafted free agent, and he admitted the interest in both felt strange.

"It's weird," he said. "Anybody who knows me knows how I am, so it's just funny. But I always feel like I'm right, so it's not like a big deal to me. I always felt like I knew what I was talking about when I got up there and I had to speak. I really meant those words. That was coming from the heart, but I really felt like I was right and I knew that it would work out for me.

"At that time, I might have been one of a handful of people who believed that, but here we are today. I guess it's more interesting to see how you have to be on your own, standing on your own two [feet], and do it that way and then people will follow you and jump on the bandwagon and they will start to see it after you make them see it.

"That's the fun part for me, seeing how this following is kind of growing and watching everybody try to pretend to be underdogs and adopt the 'Bet on yourself' thing. It's becoming mainstream now, which is hilarious to me."

VanVleet's steady improvement over his four years in Toronto, as well as his toughness and defensive grit despite his diminutive stature by NBA standards, have become key parts of the identity the Raptors have created in recent seasons. His hot shooting in the 2019 NBA playoffs in both the latter half of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks and in the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors helped Toronto win the 2019 NBA title, and he followed that up by posting career-best numbers across the board after assuming a starting spot next to his close friend and mentor Kyle Lowry this past season.

Now, VanVleet said, he hopes to acquire some more individual accolades -- which, while he declined to name them, likely include an All-Star berth after being a candidate for one this past season. His top goal, however, is to win another championship.

"All of the individual accolades that you could ever think of -- though I don't really share those publicly because that's not what I'm into -- but I've got a lot on the table that I want to get done," VanVleet said. "But now I'm just locked in on that next championship. That feeling of winning a championship, it trumps anything I've ever done in my life, in my career. Besides my kids, that's right up there, as far as personal journeys and accomplishments that you can make.

"So trying to chase that next championship, that's what I'm locked in on."

The Raptors will at least begin this season doing that from Tampa, Florida, after the team announced last week that it would not be able to begin the season in Toronto because of border complications due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The team had to deal with similar issues back in June, heading to Florida early for its training camp before the NBA held its bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.

VanVleet said not playing in front of Toronto's fans for almost a year now made the decision to play in Florida easier to stomach but that he was looking forward to the day he and the team could return to Scotiabank Arena.

"I think it's less of a sting because we haven't played in front of fans in so long. But also, once we knew that Toronto was up in the air, as far as us being able to return, I was just happy it was somewhere warm," VanVleet said with a laugh.

"Hopefully we'll spend our time there and doing what we've gotta do and then make our way back to Toronto at some point, obviously respecting all of the COVID guidelines. Health and safety comes first. So obviously, we miss our fans and we can't wait to get back to them."