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Raptors guard VanVleet says it's a big honour to be among U.S. Olympic player pool

Fred VanVleet didn't grow up among basketball's young stars. He was an underdog on the outside looking in, developing himself into an NBA star through sheer will and hard work.

Fred VanVleet didn't grow up among basketball's young stars.

He was an underdog on the outside looking in, developing himself into an NBA star through sheer will and hard work.

So the Toronto Raptors guard said to see his name among USA Basketball's pool of players for the Tokyo Olympics was a "big honour."

"It's a nod of respect to be thought about for that pool of players to represent your country," VanVleet said Thursday. 

"It's going to take some time to wrap my head around that one. I've never been a part of that type of environment. Growing up I didn't do much AAU top-100, those types of things, where it's the same guys you see all the time and end up being a lottery pick."

USA Basketball, which has captured gold at the last three Olympics, reportedly sent out 60 invitations, casting a wider net than usual because of potential scheduling conflicts. 

The NBA playoffs run right into the Olympics — the two teams in the NBA Finals could play right up to a day before the Games open on July 23.

VanVleet, who's averaging 18.9 points and 6.6 assists a night this season, joins Raptors teammate and 2016 Olympic gold medallist Kyle Lowry in the player pool. 

The 26-year-old VanVleet, from Rockford, Ill., cherishes the chance to be around the best in the game. 

“There are a million and one ways you can learn in a situation like that, being around some of the best players in the league, great coaches (San Antonio's Gregg Popovich is the team's head coach) and what USA Basketball has been for my lifetime — the standard of excellence all-around, on the court, off the court," VanVleet said.

"It’ll be great if nothing else just to go and be next to guys and learn their strengths and weaknesses. Obviously I’m a huge learner. I like to watch and observe."

The Raptors fell to 7-11 with their 115-108 loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday. 

While they're only four games back of third place in the Eastern Conference, the 11th-place Raptors find themselves lower down the standings than they've been in years.

VanVleet said everything going on in the world — mainly the COVID-19 pandemic — has put a strain on people's mental health, including his. The losing this season hasn't helped.

"The losing has worn on me more than I ever expected because I’ve never been on a team like this," he said. "I take losses very hard."

How does one adapt to being on a losing team?

"For me, it’s been tough, it’s been tough. Just taking it day by day. For the most part, just understanding there’s a lot of basketball left to turn it around. We’re not that far. 

"Start looking at the standings, look at the teams in front of you, look at the records across the league. There are good teams that aren’t playing their best right now all over. Just understand the situation and the scenario and keep perspective on things and understand we still have a chance to make things right. I’m very confident that we will."

The Raptors host the Sacramento Kings on Friday at their temporary home at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla. 

OG Anunoby, who has a left calf strain, remains questionable for Friday. 

"He's day-to-day right now," coach Nick Nurse said after Thursday's practice. "I think he feels a little bit better today than he did yesterday, but whether . . . a little improvement today and a little improvement tomorrow will be in time, we'll have to see. He's day-to-day."

Nurse suggested that Patrick McCaw could be back playing in the near future, saying he participated in the non-contact portion of Thursday's practice.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press